Tuesday, December 22, 2015

"Harry Shearer and Judith Owen's Christmas Without Tears (Does This Tree Make Me Look Fat?)" - Totally Brilliant

By Judd Hollander

By Arkanjel Productions
Husband and wife Harry Shearer and Judith Owen offer a perfect way to ring in the 2016 holiday season with their annual party, Christmas Without Tears (Does this Tree Make me Look Fat?). The festivities held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gillman Opera House on December 1st and then proceeding on a brief tour.

What originally started out as a simple Christmas gathering in the couple's Santa Monica home has grown exponentially over the years, becoming a public performance for the first in 2005, with a portion of proceeds from ticket sales going to charitable organizations. This year's beneficiary being the Elton John AIDS Foundation. A particularly apropos choice especially in light of the fact that December 1st is World AIDS Day. The press materials describing the show as "a guilt-free way of having fun and giving back".

Owen was the de facto host for most of the evening, often combining her words with a tongue and cheek air of depression. She putting it down to the fact that since she's Welsh, she was in fact born depressed. Her mood in actuality helping to set the stage for some of the more poignant moments in the piece. Such as the song "(I'll Sing) Silent Night For You", honoring those friends who are no longer with us; and "The Best Things", about the joy of having a loved one close by for Christmas. Both of the numbers sung beautifully by Owen. Also quite touching was a sequence where she comes out holding a stuffed toy, and, after dissolving into tears while noting how childhood dreams and fantasies just don't come true, a life-size version of that selfsame toy (played by Godfrey Daniels) appeared and proceeded to enchant the audience via a series of silent movements and interplay with a large red ball. 

Shearer meanwhile nicely injected some political humor into the evening with his song "Christmas a'la Trump". Something The Donald would probably have liked were he in the audience. Shearer also revealing one of Christmas' biggest kept secrets via the tune "Jesus was a Dreidel Spinner". "Spinner" being one of several not-strictly-Christmas songs presented. The number was a nod to Shearer's heritage, something Owen says she first became aware of about five years into their marriage. Shearer also at one point talked about global warming while noting his people have "been burning oil for a long time". 

The entire performance was a very enjoyable mixture of the heartfelt and the hilarious, with the various "party guests" performing a number or two, or a comedy bit, and then basically becoming happy onlookers at the party itself. Those not actively participating at the moment, sitting near the fireplace, watching the goings on and talking amongst themselves. Owen and Shearer at times circulating the stage like the genial hosts they are. These actions creating the impression of being in the living room of some old friends and just having an enjoyable time. Which exactly what a Christmas party should be. 

Also running throughout the evening was the continual feeling that all of the performances presented were totally off the cuff and completely unrehearsed. This was especially evident in the "Jingle Bell Rock" duet by Shearer and Paul Shaffer. Shaffer, probably best known for his 33-year tenure as David Letterman's musical director, also getting in some good licks in the piano during the song. Another similarly rousing number was the raucous "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" sung by Doña Oxford, and which quite rightly brought the house down while closing the first act of what Owen called a "ten hour" show - actually three hours and fifteen minutes. Shearer and Owen definitely believing in giving the audience their money's worth.

By Alex Kluft
Other highlights included a virtuoso performance by banjo player Bèla Fleck, who offered up some fascinating riffs on various Christmas carols, including "the First Noel" and "Joy to the World; all the while moving seamlessly from one song to the next. Another standout was Keith Nelson of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus performing a vaudeville routine which included multiple bowl spinning and spoon flipping. The latter effort in particular being harder than it sounds. Also of note was actor Fred Willard's recitation of what he called the "true story of Christmas", which reduced the entire audience to fits of laugher. Willard's talk delivered in a perfectly deadpan manner. In the same comical vein, one of the definite highpoints of the show was a performance by actor Mario Cantone and his biting deconstruction of the classic television special "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer". Cantone giving his personal take on what that special was really talking about with it's continual reference to "misfits" and those people that just don't fit in.

There was also the chance to pick up some interesting trivia which could used at one's own Christmas party. When singer/musician Peter Asher of the 1960s music group "Peter and Gordon" performed their hit "I Don't Want to Live in a World Without Love", he pointed out the song was originally written by Paul McCartney for the Beatles, who rejected it. McCartney later finishing the tune and giving it Peter and Gordon to record. One also learned the meaning of the expression "the steamy" as it applies to Glasgow terminology. Performer Alan Cumming elaborating on a bit of Scottish slang before going on to sing a song of his own.

The evening also included some audience participation, the crowd performing a rather unique rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas". They being urged on in their efforts by Owen and the rest of those on stage, with prizes handed out when it was over for the most outrageous participants.

Further helping to add to the overall yuletide feeling was a stage nicely festooned with Christmas trees, a menorah, holiday wreaths, and the afore-mentioned fireplace - adorned with hanging stockings of course. Christmas Without Tears is exactly what a Christmas party should be about. A chance to connect with some old friends and meeting some new ones in the process. One could easily imagine sitting with these folks and sipping hot chocolate or drinking eggnog while singing Christmas carols, swapping stories or just catching up on the latest news and gossip - which is what friends do. Well done indeed!

Harry Shearer and Judith Owen's Christmas Without Tears
(Does this Tree Make me Look Fat?)

Harry Shearer, Judith Owen, Alan Cumming, Mario Cantone, Alfie Boe, Paul Shaffer, Bèla Fleck, Peter Asher, Davell Crawford, Godfrey Daniels, Jerry Dixon, Amy Engelhardt, The Gregory Brothers, Keith Nelson, Doña Oxford, The Songbirds, Fred Willard

Choral Singers: 
Amy Engelhardt, Director
Mick Bleyer, Emily Goglia, Kristi Holden, Tim Kodres, Austin Ku, Jen Malenke. Mark Bradley Miller, Anne Fraser Thomas

Music Director: 
CJ Vanston

CJ Vanston (Piano), Leland Sklar (Bass), Oz Noy (Guitar), Jim Hines (Drums)

Set Designers:
Steven Hillyer, Tim Marback, Judith Owen, Harry Gaveras

Set Decoration:
Pam Halstead

Lighting Designer:
Paul Bartlett

Production Assistant:
Pam Halstead

Hair and Makeup:
M'Shane Alsondo, Deja Smith, Dee TrannyBear

Tour Manager:
Mark Botting

Tour Stage Manager: 
Jennifer Hellman

Produced by: 
Steven Hillyer, Tim Marback, Judith Owen

Directed by: 

Judith Owen, Tim Marback, Steve Hillyer

Performed at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House on December 1, 2015

Christmas Without Tears Tour Information: http://christmaswithouttears.com/

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