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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Santa Baby from Seattle Men's Chorus Brightens the Season at Benaroya Hall

Also see David's review of Equivocation

Even without special opening weekend guest Betty Buckley, the annual Seattle Men's Chorus Holiday concert Santa Baby is a cause for celebration as the guys unwrap one of their best yuletide performances ever. At the performance I attended, a vociferous and nearly full house were treated to multiple merry musical delights, highlighted with some campy choreography and a ton of good humor. Some technical blemishes and opening night jitters aside, the show was all we've come to expect from the SMC, who launch their 30th season with this concert.

Highlights of this year's concert begin with the opening "Heavy Christmas" parody medley, set to music by the likes of Strauss, Wagner, Grieg, Verdi, Bizet, Khachaturian and Tchaikovsky. Several outstanding pieces feature lyrics, sometimes music, and inspiration from the brain of Assistant Artistic director Eric Lane Barnes, including "Ebenezer the Miser" (think "Minnie the Moocher" by Cab Calloway"); a "Kid Row" holidayized version of Little Shop of Horrors' "Skid Row"; the jubilant act one closing "Bolly Jolly Holiday," which plays like Bombay Dreams of a white Christmas; and a celebratory "Thriller Christmas" salute to Michael Jackson, led by frisky and fleet-footed dancer Will Halsey.

Though a little rough around the edges (and cursed with hit and miss miking) a lengthy act two opening "Very Special Christmas Special" by Seattle composer/arranger David Maddux, shows off the considerable warmth and charm of Dan Wolcott and Frank Stilwagner as twin brothers whose mom had allegedly written many classic ("John Denver & The Muppets: A Christmas Together"), neo-classic {"The Year Without Santa Claus") and non-classic ("Partridge Family" and "The Star Wars Holiday Special") vintage holiday shows. A standout among the hard-working players in this segment is David Griffin's on the snout voicing of Miss Piggy.

Subtler, softer shades of the holidays are embraced in warm renditions of "Do You Hear What I Hear?," "Light A Candle" and another nod to Michael Jackson, in a now unjustly obscure Christmas hit from the artist's early days, the touching "Someday at Christmas." The chorus' traditional sing-along is included and of course their ever potent "Silent Night," which culminates with the entire group, led by veteran Seattle Men's Chorus ASL interpreter Kevin Gallagher signing the timeless song as all around is heavenly peace.

But ... if you were there on opening weekend, your extra gift was the radiant and vibrant voiced Betty Buckley. Supported with effortless grace and feeling by Kenny Werner, her accompanist/arranger since 1990, Betty mainly stuck to traditional holiday hymns like "What Child is This?" and contemporary musings such as "I Wonder as I Wander." Buckley included a bracing rendition of Joni Mitchell's "I Wish I Had A River" as well as an especially fine rendition of a song she first brought to Broadway in her Tony award winning turn as Grizabella in Cats, "Memory." Though muzak and lesser performers have tarnished this Lloyd Webber standard, Buckley has a way of making you feel you are hearing it for the very first time. The audience response was notably stronger than it was last year when Jennifer Holliday filled the guest star slot. Make of that what you will.

Make sure, especially if the economy has cut down on the number of shows you take in this month, to try to catch Santa Baby. And oh yes, there is also a rendition of the pop classic that will always belong to Eartha Kitt, but is now in the capable hands of Seattle cabaret star deluxe, Arnaldo. So savory was his performance on opening night, the Tony winning Buckley admitted he was "a tough act to follow." As is the Seattle Men's Chorus.

Seattle Men's Chorus: Santa Baby runs December 6, 13, 14 and 20 at Benaroya Hall, 200 University Street in downtown Seattle. $37-$65 (206-388-1400, 206-215-4747 or www.FlyingHouse.org).

See the list of this season's theatre offerings in the Seattle area.



- David Edward Hughes



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