“Christmas in Song” at Quality Hill Playhouse celebrates the season with a show made up of beautifully crafted gems that have been requested again and again.
Among them was a version of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” that included the sometimes-ignored first verse. It was the same arrangement that emcee and pianist J. Kent Barnhart did for Quality Hill’s first show 20 years ago this month.
The 20th anniversary seems to have struck a nostalgic chord for Barnhart, who presents the songs in a cabaret-style revue interspersed with comments reflecting his dry sense of humor. He does depart from his usual format to give fellow performers Lindsey McKee, Cary Mock and LeShea Wright the opportunity to share their memories of working together, with the message that family, an important theme of the season, includes the audience members.
The show opens with the exquisite harmonies that have become a trademark of Quality Hill. I had the sense that more than the usual quota of the nearly two dozen songs were done a cappella and as a group, reminding me of the carolers (albeit very talented ones) one might find knocking at the door.
My only disappointment: There were no surprises this year. In shows of Christmases past, Barnhart has discovered songs I’ve never heard. Such a complaint, though, is akin to griping that you liked all your gifts but none was unexpected.
Barnhart’s piano solo of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” provides a plaintive introduction to the “Manger Medley,” an arrangement of traditional Christmas hymns that feels dark and mysterious and magical.
McKee, with her proper British accent and operatic soprano voice, provides comic relief with “The Twelve Days After Christmas.” How many holiday songs mention rubber gloves?
Listening to the lyrics will add to your enjoyment and understanding of this show. Barnhart explains that the Kenny Rogers hit “’Til the Season Comes ’Round Again” made the cut not just because of its folk/country twang but also for what the words say about the holiday.
Ditto for a set of songs in the second act that reflect on Christmas from other points of view. Mock, the father of five children, captures the concern of Joseph, a simple carpenter given the task of raising the Son of God, in “Joseph’s Song.” Barnhart goes from cynicism to belief in “The Shepherd,” while McKee expresses the wonder and the joy of the woman who will always remember when “Mary Let Me Hold Her Baby.”
Wright has the unenviable task of breathing new life into “Mary, Did You Know?” but her powerful voice infuses it with a jazzy feel. She shines, too, on the heartfelt “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
As a former piano teacher, I appreciate the rousing duet version of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” as Barnhart shares the piano bench with Mock, and Barnhart’s piano solo version of “Jingle Bells.” Arranged by Charles Lindberg, the piece sounds at first like a Scott Joplin rag and ends like an Edvard Grieg concerto.
The second act concludes with a trio of show-stoppers: McKee’s soul-stirring “O Holy Night,” Wright and Mock explaining why Christmas matters in the inspirational “More Than Wonderful” and the toe-tapping “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
Friday night’s performance ended with a well-deserved standing ovation.