Cool and marvelous

Kristin Shafel Omiccioli |

Performing for a sold-out Folly Theater last Saturday night, the Heartland Men’s Chorus continued its holiday tradition with the big band jazz-inspired program Cool Yule and special guest artist Marilyn Maye. In its first-ever collaboration with the Mid America Freedom Band, members of the group accompanied HMC as the Mighty Mo Combo. The combo laid a respectable foundation for the choir, with local trumpeter Al Pearson notably standing out as a soloist. HMC’s regular rhythm section Lamar Sims, piano; Ray DiMarchi, drums; and Rick Huyett, electric bass) kept a comfortable but tight beat throughout.

Typical of HMC shows, the first half showcased more standard repertoire including “Happy Holidays/Holiday Inn,” “Winter Weather/Let it Snow,” “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” and “Jing-a-Ling.” The men were exceptional on these tunes—a full, meaty sound, rich harmonies, crisp diction, and strong sustain.

Chorus member John Edmonds displayed a confident, laid-back swagger during his feature, “Little Jack Frost Get Lost.” The six distinct voices of HMC’s subset ensemble the Heartaches blended well to convey a tender, affecting interpretation of the sweet “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

HMC’s set on the second half of the concert, as usual, featured more playful, silly repertoire. Donning red scarves and showing off light choreography (including jazz thumbs…) the men shimmied and swayed to “Cool Yule,” “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus,” “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” and more. My favorite selection of the night was “Hot Hannukah” on the second half. HMC pulled out all the stops with this one—an expressive, hammy solo from chorus member Steven Jeffrey Karlin, a polyphonic texture, high energy, Gene Krupa-style drumming by DiMarchi, and festive lighting design made “Hot Hannukah” an irresistible showstopper.

A vision in sparkling red velvet, Marilyn Maye took the stage with her combo (Billy Stritch, piano; Andy Hall, double bass; and Jim Eklof, drums) for two sets during the concert. Maye’s sets were high-spirited cabarets focused more on Broadway and big band hits than Christmas music, including “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe,” “Mountain Greenery,” and jazzed out versions of “Wouldn’t It be Loverly?” and “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady. Maye was her inimitable self, with expert showmanship and a blithe, sassy sense of humor.

Maye’s final selections brought the house down, though, holding the audience in rapt attention with these anthems of life’s mysteries, breakdowns, and wonders: James Taylor’s “Secret of Life” and the Butler/Molinary song “Here’s to Life,” made famous by Shirley Horn.

A playful back-and-forth between Maye and the men on “Big Time/Open a New Window” and “It’s Today” closed the concert, followed by an encore of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and a standing ovation. Despite a few slight performance issues—spots of imbalance, shaky intonation, and hesitant entrances—the Heartland Men’s Chorus never fails to elicit plenty of smiles, laughter, and good cheer in its always heartfelt and entertaining programs, no matter the time of year.

Heartland Men’s Chorus
Cool Yule with Marilyn Maye
Friday, November 30­­–Sunday, December 2 (Reviewed Saturday, December 1)
Folly Theater
300 W. 12th St. Kansas City, MO