Holiday concerts can be fun, but there are only so many ways to balance the fresh and the familiar. A fairly restricted canon of songsno matter how many religious traditions are integrated (or ignored)means that most of these, even if they're loaded with spirit, start feeling alike after a while. But never doubt that creativity can shift perceptions in an instant. The New York Pops's latest outing at Carnegie Hall, Kelli and Matthew: Home for the Holidays, which is playing through tonight, achieves this in a particularly delightful way: with a ukulele.
Not exactly the most common of December instruments, right? But in the hands of Matthew Morrison, who may be best known for starring on the TV series Glee but is at least as recognizable to New York theatregoers for his major turns in Hairspray, The Light in the Piazza, and South Pacific (and will return this season in Finding Neverland), it seems perfectly natural. After explaining that he had his first professional jobs in Hawaii singing with Don Ho and recently married his wife in Maui, Morrison begins crooning a heartfelt "I'll Be Home for Christmas" before segueing into a frantically strummed but otherwise laid-back "Mele Kalikimaka" that all but redirects lush tropical breezes straight down Seventh Avenue to warm the soul the New York weather is trying so hard to chill.
Even more than Robert Alex Anderson's infectious song itself, it's Morrison's easygoing charm and unaffected affection that really get you swaying and (gently) excited. It's a perfect match of voice and numbernot too heavy, but with enough substance to keep from floating away entirelyand though utterly in keeping with the theme, totally unexpected in its impact. In a concert (and, for that matter, a season) that typically opts for the Big Sells above all else, there's no better way to grab and hold your attention than going small, even if just once.
This is not to say the show isn't also enjoyable in its more sweeping moments, of which there are plenty. Hearing the Essential Voices USA choir (under the direction of Judith Clurman) apply its considerable vocal resources to the likes of "We Need a Little Christmas," "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," "Wishes and Candles" (a more recent, contemplative composition, by Stephen Paulus and Alan and Marilyn Bergman), and a darkly stirring Chanukah medley (headed by powerhouse baritone soloist Arlo Hill) at the end of the first act, is a thrill. And even when it's just the Pops, plowing through "Winter Wonderland," "Carol of the Bells," or, most memorably, a hilariously unpredictable spin on "Jingle Bell Rock" (which Reineke arranged himself), it's tough to have a bad time.
You have, however, been there before. And when Morrison unleashes a soupy, underpowered "Younger Than Springtime," or he and his glittering costar Kelli O'Hara duet on "Baby, It's Cold Outside," "Let It Snow!", or "Tonight" from West Side Story, the renditions, though expert, aren't quite enough to dissuade you from the notion.
A few brushes with genuine tradition and the deeper meaning of Christmas, are, paradoxically, more successful. O'Hara, who starred alongside Morrison in Piazza and South Pacific, and hardly lacks for Broadway credits of her own (most recently The Bridges of Madison County, and The King and I is coming up), is tasked with much of this "serious" stuff, and more than does it justice. She unleashes her crystalline soprano on a solo of John Jacob Niles's haunting "I Wonder as I Wander," imbuing it with questioning airiness and weight, and a towering but reverent "O Holy Night," which, as backed by the choir, brought much of the opening night audience to its feet in a prolonged ovation.
Kelli and Matthew: Home for the Holiday closes with a sing-along of carols"Oh Come All Ye Faithful," "Hark the Harold Angels Sing," "Joy to the World," "Silent Night"that feel chosen for their time-tested ability to conjure the warmth of family and friends, as you gather around a fireplace to honor the season. It's a fitting end to a fine evening, but don't surprised if your mind won't stop whirring about how, the next time you find yourself in such a situation, you may be able to incorporate a ukulele.
Kelli and Matthew: Home for the Holidays