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REVIEW: McDonough's 'Holiday Grande' showcases music, reason for the season

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UPDATED: 21 January 2014 | 3:46 pm   ::  

CEDAR RAPIDS — Jim McDonough, who bills himself as “Iowa’s Own Pianist,” filled the Paramount Theatre with Christmas cheer on Sunday (12/9/12) afternoon. A capacity crowd enjoyed a sweet, but never saccharine, holiday treat.

On his 14 recordings, McDonough is a solo artist. But for his “Holiday Grande 2012” concert, a benefit for Camp Courageous of Iowa, eight dancer/singers and a 13-piece orchestra under the direction of Kevin Brown join him onstage. The concert featured both medleys and full performances of a wide array of Christmas songs, with the more sacred carols largely saved for the final portion of the performance.

While the dancers struggled just a smidgen with the choreography during the opening number, it was the only real miscue of the show, which is put together and performed entirely by Iowans. Steve Shanley’s orchestrations complemented and never overpowered McDonough’s playing. Scott Olinger’s set and lighting designs were lovely, and Michelle Philgreen’s choreography and costumes provided just the right touches.

But it is McDonough himself who makes the show so delightful. His warm personality and his love of making music shone throughout the performance. He readily admits his love of the arpeggio, and someone in a Grinch-like frame of mind might suggest he uses the ornamentation overmuch, but on the whole, his playing is lovely to listen to. I came to enjoy his voice more and more over the course of the concert, as well. He sings only a few numbers, but his performance of “Mary Did You Know,” which he played and sang toward concert’s end, was a true highpoint.

McDonough didn’t stick strictly to familiar Christmas tunes. In the first half of the show, he took the audience on a musical trip to Brazil and also performed a medley of songs of, as he put it, “faith in God and faith in country.” The medley included such songs as “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America,” but also included John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which, one might argue, is both anti-religious and anti-patriotic. It was quickly followed by Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” which felt more in keeping with the theme.

The first act also featured an apparent standby of McDonough’s concerts. He stood center stage with a clipboard and took requests, and then sat down at the piano and wove a medley on the spot. It’s a parlor trick, but it’s an impressive one, and McDonough adroitly connected melody to melody. Highpoints included a snippet of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” played as a schmaltzy ballad, and the transitioning from “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” to the “Iowa Fight Song,” which wrapped up the impromptu piece.

As noted above, McDonough saves the religious music for the end of the concert, but he doesn’t give it, or the message behind it, short shrift. From traditional favorites like “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night,” to an upbeat (and quirky) take on “Ode to Joy” and a moving rendition of “Breath of Heaven” (performed by the singers and orchestra with McDonough offstage), the Christ child was clearly identified as the heart of the season.

ARTS EXTRA

What: Jim McDonough's "Holiday Grande 2012"

Davenport: 2:30 p.m. Dec. 15, Adler Theatre, $29 to $34, RiverCenter/Adler Theatre Box Office, 1-(800) 745-3000 or TicketMaster.com

Cedar Falls: 2:30 p.m. Dec. 16, Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center, $29 to $34, 1-(877) 549-7469, Unitix.uni.edu

Proceeds: Benefit Camp Courageous of Iowa

Information: Pianofavorites.com/

 

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