Reviewer: Connor Rousseau
Venue: The State Theatre
Internationally acclaimed pianist Kevin Cole packed the State Theater in Bay City, Michigan last week for two performances of his annual “Cole in Your Stocking” Christmas program. I knew this man had talent, seeing as he has devoted much of his life to the work of George Gershwin and the Great American Songbook. More recently, he has been selected by the National Orchestra Institute to perform in a concert and official recording of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Second Rhapsody for the Naxos label. Although he travels across the country to share his piano skills, he returned to his hometown of Bay City to sprinkle the magic of Christmas in his audience’s ears.
Cole unleashed his natural talent during “Cole in Your Stocking” 2022, a talent one must witness in a packed audience of awe-struck men, women, and children to truly appreciate. Cole packed every note with emotion and purpose, and the sheer abundance of notes and the tempo at which they were played reminded me of the talent of Mozart himself.
When someone plays the wrong note on the piano, it is immediately identifiable. The entire flow and unity of the music are lost amid a disturbing dissonance, and every audience member immediately realizes: the musician made a mistake. But even in the most chaotically brilliant moments of Cole’s performance during which he practiced what he calls “finger gymnastics,” I couldn’t spot an error. That kind of skill reminded me of a speedy typist pounding on a keyboard for hours and not making a single typo. His gifted hands performed with fine motor skills I didn’t think human beings possessed.
Cole’s performance was dedicated to the Christmas season, and his program included timeless holiday hits that released the giddy, childish Christmas spirit, which, for many of us, has lain dormant for decades. At the age of 21, the transition into adulthood has stolen from me much of that childish charm of Christmas, but Kevin Cole’s brilliance brought it back in full force. After intermission, Cole included an audience sing-a-long of classic Christmas songs like “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “White Christmas,” “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” and “Joy to the World.” I can’t tell you the last time I sang such songs, but Cole invited me on a trip down memory lane replete with smiling family faces, hot chocolate, peaceful snowfall, a warm fireplace, nativity scenes, candle walks, candy canes, gingerbread houses, horse-drawn carriage rides, trips to Santa’s house, and dreams of Santa Claus’ reindeer soaring across the infinite sky with a sleigh full of presents.
Cole’s performance was not entirely solo, however. Tezra Mohr Trobma, Rebecca Smith, and Susan Jacobs Fisher are three close friends of his who joined him on stage and shared their angelic voices for songs like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “My Favorite Things,” and “Mary Did You Know?”
Although Cole’s performance revolved around themes of Christmas, he did devote a chunk of his concert to honoring the 70th anniversary of the release of the film Singing in the Rain with a musical medley. Songs included “Make ‘em Laugh,” “Singing in the Rain,” “Beautiful Girl,” “Moses Supposes,” “Broadway Melody,” and “Fit as a Fiddle,” among others. This performance surely brought back memories to the older folks in the audience like my grandfather, who remembers seeing the film for the first time in theatres back in 1952. For younger folks like me with a passion for older musicals, it brought a joyful smile to my face.
Cole’s concert concluded with “Sleigh Ride” by Leroy Anderson, a complex piece with many moving parts. Still, Cole conquered the piece with the musical aptitude of his ten fingers as they danced across the keys of his Steinway & Sons grand piano.
After a standing ovation, Cole performed “Away in a Manger” and “O Holy Night” as an encore before departing the stage and greeting his audience. After speaking with several audience members, I learned that Kevin Cole has a loyal group of fans that has followed his decades-long career as a pianist to cheer him on and enjoy his musical talent.
In summary, Kevin Cole’s remarkable talent was on full display at the State Theatre last week. His charismatic charm, musical fluency, and felicity of the Christmas spirit expressed in the universal language of music made “Cole in Your Stocking” the kind of annual event I will be marking on my calendar with each new year.