Early in the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's telling of The Christmas Attic on Thursday night at Rupp Arena, narrator Bryan Hicks spoke of a child being warned that life during the holiday was merely a reflection of "the same old world all tinseled up."
For close to 21/2 hours, the pomp and pageantry that TSO brought to its own seasonal songs, and to quasi-originals and medleys fashioned around familiar carols and classical works, reached for something more than a gussied-up version of holiday music. In the end, though, "tinseled up" was exactly what The Christmas Attic seemed.
One could appreciate the family-friendly theme of a child fascinated by the music boxes, Gramophones and especially letters discovered in an attic. But the sheer weight of the production design and the generally overwrought delivery of the singing, instrumentation and even narration just sank the sentiments.
It was like tying a brick to a duck and expecting it to fly.
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In fairness, bombast has always been at the heart of TSO's music, especially onstage. It has long embraced arena-rock excess on all levels, from the requisite guitar shredding to the vocal pageantry to the overall anthemic feel of the compositions, even the ballads. On top of that were enough lights, lasers and pyrotechnics to make Kiss blush.
The crowd of 8,600 ate up every effect and postured riff, but it was disappointing to experience The Christmas Attic in such a puffed-up setting. Released as a recording in 1998, it was one of TSO founder Paul O'Neill's first rock operatic works. It remains one of his simplest and gentlest pieces in terms of sentiment.
There were instances when that came through Thursday, especially in singer Rob Evan's delivery of Christmas in the Air, the 1980s-esque pop-rock piece that brought the work out from the attic of the past into the city streets of today. Similarly, The Three Kings and I exhibited a playful pop-soul strut until the arrangement simply took on too much near its conclusion — ever heard the Hallelujah chorus and Led Zeppelin's Kashmir quoted in the same tune? Well, here was your chance.
The stage was constructed to resemble a large storage trunk (yes, like you would find in an attic) that opened to reveal TSO's more stationary players — a string quartet, a drummer and a keyboardist. A 10-member vocal team made periodic turns on the stage floor, alternating lead vocal duties, while a three-man guitar lineup, led by veteran TSO mate Chris Caffery, were in constant motion on the ground and, quite often, in the air on various hydraulic lifts.
The last third of the program, which incorporated music from other TSO recordings, was more loosely presented but went even heavier on the artillery until the pop-rocker Sparks (from 2009's Night Castle) brought the lasers up to Spinal Tap proportions.
But there was a moment that effectively captured the seasonal spirit, and it had nothing to do with the music. In making good on TSO's promise to give a portion of the evening's ticket sales to charity, Caffery said before the show began that nearly $8,000 was being donated to the University of Kentucky Children's Hospital. That was when Christmas was truly in the air.