Holiday concerts…what do we want?
My expectations for a holiday gig are certainly quite different than the usual fare in the Barbara Cook Spotlight Series. If a Broadway star is going to be singing “Jingle Bells”, I don’t guess I’ll be commenting, “wow, look at that emotional connection” or “S/he really landed all the jokes in that one!” With these sort of cabarets, the musical theatre needle lands decisively more on “music” than “theatre.”
So…I think we all know how I feel about Megan Hilty. Which means the opportunity to see my favorite Broadway diva belt out some holiday standards (and, dare we hope, a few of her own “chestnuts roasting on an open fire”?) is just the thing to bring a little joy to my world.
Let’s set the scene. I had seen Hilty’s first Barbara Cook cabaret, which means I went in aware of certain things. She and her husband, guitarist Brian Gallagher, engage in some charming couply banter, and rope pianist Matt Cusson in for the ride as well. Jack Deboe, on drums, and Dennis Keefe, on bass, play on, stoic and true. The Hilty-Gallagher’s have a newborn daughter, spiking sentiments high and leading to some adorably shameless hocking of Hilty’s albums (it’s all for her education, they promise!). There will be belting, and there will be Smash.
Being there felt reminiscent of joining a young couple for their holiday party, where the eggnog would be free-flowing and friends would be gathered around the piano, lending whatever talents the collective might call for in that spur of the moment.
Cusson beginning the concert, then, with the familiar Vince Guaraldi “Oh Christmas Tree” chords was all it took to get me on that page. Hook, line, sinker, I’m sold. This review’s already written, and Hilty’s not even onstage yet! Such is the festive joy of the holidays.
Fortunately, the event actually did live up to the praise I was prepared to heap on it anyway. Hilty’s holiday highlights included a swingin’ little “Jingle Bells/Jingle Bell Rock/Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” medley to kick things off, a lovely tune from the Menken/Ahrens A Christmas Carol musical called “A Place Called Home”, and perennial classics like “The Christmas Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Duet time was clocked in with both husband Brian, on a goofy little “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”/“Blue Christmas” mash-up, and pianist Cusson, for “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (sung directly to Gallagher to mess with him, quite humorously) and “That’s Life”. By the way, Matt Cusson has one of the cleanest and most dynamic pop tenor voices I’ve ever heard, and you’d do well to give him a quick look-up on iTunes.
Most cleverly, though, was her rendition of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, with Cusson accompanying along (and soloing) with the Guaraldi piano line from “Skating” in A Charlie Brown Christmas, which made me inordinately happy, because Guaraldi and because Christmas. Using “Santa Baby” to segue into her roof-rattling, reprise-resplendent “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” closer was a nice touch, too.
Of the hit parade, Smash was well represented with “Let Me Be Your Star”, “Moving the Line”, “Second Hand White Baby Grand”, and the aforementioned “That’s Life” duet. “Popular” made an appearance, too, appearing just after a deeply affecting emotional ballad, much to the amusement of Hilty and Gallagher (there was a delightful spontaneity to the whole program).
If Megan Hilty sounded good the last time, she sounded next-level this time around. It never fails to amaze me the amount of control, and the degrees further in power, that Hilty’s instrument can go. Hers is a presence that is equally compelling running through gags in “Popular” or relaxing on a stool to share a cut from her album.
Christmas is a time for family, cheer, and lots of legendary music to fill the world, and Megan Hilty and company ably did their part to truss up the season in Washington, DC.
And so, taking a cue from the gang at the Kennedy Center, I, too, would like to wish you all, dear readers, a marvelous and Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, or spirited holiday season in whatever way you do or don’t celebrate.
Here’s your present from me. Enjoy!