Working It

The title 3 Guys Without Day Jobs: Having a Holiday may suggest that pianist Don Irwin, operatic vocalist Gene Roberts and gospel singer Virgil Seals are underachievers, but that's hardly the case. The name, it turns out, is a joke.

"Everyone knows," says Irwin, the show's creator, "that musicians don't work a nine-to-five job."

Irwin began performing Christmas concerts in Minnesota nearly ten years ago with comedian Bill Arnold and guitarist Billy McLaughlin. But after more than 100 performances together, Irwin's original partners pursued solo careers, and he moved to Texas, finally settling, three years ago, in Houston, to head the production and distribution company Signature Music Group, which he had started back in 1992. Now Irwin has found two new guys, Roberts and Seals, to perform with. Roberts recently accepted a professorship at the University of Colorado in Denver, and Seals works in state government in Austin -- guys without day jobs, indeed!

The show, which features an eclectic mix of classical, Broadway and Christmas songs, will make three stops in Texas. Irwin is thrilled to finally perform in Houston, his hometown. In fact, all the performers have ties to the state: Seals grew up in Austin, and Roberts received his master's of music from the University of Houston.

"Traveling around the country, everyone thinks Texans are like cowboys," says an amused Irwin, "but people here have great music appreciation."

The three have diverse talents. Irwin plays mostly classical music, while Seals veers towards gospel, and Roberts has a theatrical background. Irwin has put together a bill that allows each of them to demonstrate their expertise. "I like versatility. I just think it's more interesting," he says. This is their first tour together, and as Irwin says, "it's like getting three concerts in one."

In the show, Irwin gives Christmas music a contemporary makeover. He describes his upbeat take on The Nutcracker's "Waltz of the Flower" as a "21st-century version." On the group's promotional compact disc, this song is crammed with breakneck piano runs and exuberant flourishes, and the arrangement pushes the melody into swinging and up-tempo beats. And Irwin thrives during his solo performance of Chopin's "Fantasie Impromptu." This intimate piece demonstrates technical mastery without sacrificing soul; in it, Irwin easily slides from a neurotically buzzed frenzy to hushed contentment.

Roberts, who has performed in several operas and musicals, including The Marriage of Figaro, Beauty and the Beast and Phantom of the Opera, gets the spotlight in performances of "Memories" and other Broadway classics.

Although Virgil Seals has garnered less acclaim than his partners, he is essential to the ensemble. His uplifting gospel style and rich vocals anchor the trio with soulful enthusiasm. During the spirited last section of the concert, he delivers the toe-tapping numbers "This Christmas" and "Chestnuts."

The concert will end with an explosive "Joy to the World," performed by the entire trio and accompanied by full string and rhythm sections. Then, the three guys go on to Ohio, Virginia and -- you guessed it -- back to their day jobs.

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Karem Said