Like so many Angelenos transplanted from more wintry climes, Judith Owen grew homesick for an old-fashioned Christmas. So the British singer and her husband, humorist, actor and musician Harry Shearer, started throwing holiday parties at their home, inviting folks over and leading them in inebriated sing-alongs of holiday songs. The guest list soon became too big for their home to accommodate (and their house is currently being renovated), so they moved the festivities to Disney Hall for what should become an annual event.
Owen and Shearer are wonderful hosts who tried to replicate their house party as closely as possible. Disney Hall was the perfect choice of venue for the show; its warm acoustics and “vineyard” seating plan, with the audience surrounding the stage, provides the intimacy this type of perf demands. The stage is set with plush red couches and easy chairs (their actual furniture, Owens informs the crowd, pulled out of storage), poinsettias, a piano (played with a light touch by Bryan Pezzone) and a Christmas tree. They also invited some friends to populate the stage; they sat around, drinks in hand, making small talk, and occasionally joined in the performances. Even Victor, the family dog, joined the party.
Owen started the night off, welcoming the aud with a jazzy “Christmas Song.” She was followed by what she calls “the ringers”: friends who are also professional musicians.
They included Julia Fordham, whose dusky voice brings just the right touch of melancholy to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”; Richard Thompson, who, as you might expect, unearths an obscure “folk carol,” “Herod and the Cock”; “A Mighty Wind” and “Best in Show” veteran John Michael Higgins, who leads the eight-voice O.K. Chorale (including fellow Christopher Guest ensemble players Jane Lynch, Catherine O’Hara and Shearer) in an a capella medley of modern carols.
Keb’ Mo’ — who invited Owen and Shearer to his holiday show at Disney Hall last year –returned the favor, performing an original Christmas song. Shearer took center stage for a wonderfully droll cover of Jill Sobule’s “Jesus Was a Dreidel Spinner” (the ecumenical part of the evening, he explained) and swung his way through “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Second half of the show was dedicated to audience participation, climaxing with a wonderfully raucous “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Owen divided the house, with each section assigned one “day” to sing; the crowd got into the spirit, with each section trying to outdo the others, and everyone chiming in for “five golden rings.” Owens and Shearer conducted the song with broad smiles on their faces — it was obvious they were enjoying themselves as much as the aud.
Evening ended with the 40-strong Angeles Chorale Chamber Singers and organist Philip Smith taking the stage and leading the house in “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” and “Joy to the World.” It was a fitting finale to a holiday celebration that was as funny, heartfelt and nostalgic as one could want; all that was missing were snowdrifts on the ground as you left the theater.