Judith Owen and Harry Shearer's Holiday Sing-Along
8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., Dec. 18-19
Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528-3805; www.cacno.org
Tickets $25, $15 CAC members
Rudolph may have Santa's pity, but when it comes to nasal afflictions, he's got nothing on Judith Owen. Last December, the Welsh singer/songwriter was all set to perform the local leg of her Holiday Sing-Along, the annual Tipitina's Foundation benefit tour she created with husband, part-time New Orleanian and full-time funnyman Harry Shearer (The Simpsons, This is Spinal Tap). Then, Owen says, a door fell on her face.
"One of those iron security gates that goes up and down," she explains. "I had a completely crushed nose, and the next day I did a show. Amazingly enough, I [sounded] absolutely normal. It was after the show that I had my post-traumatic stress, and I cried the entire Christmas."
Ironically — or appropriately, given Shearer's lampooning shtick — the charity-supporting, cheer-spreading event has proved calamitous for many participants. A scheduled gig in Oakland, Calif., last week was scuttled when Owen and her stand-in both contracted tonsillitis. At the Nov. 30 tour opener in Seattle, a backup singer in an a cappella quartet was thought to have suffered a heart attack. ("I was pressed into service to sing on one of these songs of theirs," Shearer laments.) And Victor, the couple's golden retriever, is still licking his wounds after being banned from the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles for defecating backstage. ("He basically came in and took a fabulous squat in front of the security guard," Owen recalls.)
Broken bones, throat cultures, cardiac arrest, canine excrement: It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, Shearer-style. For the fifth straight year, the actor, writer and singer is splashing sardonic tonic into Owen's spirited gin. She sings Mel Tormé's "The Christmas Song"; he counters with Jill Sobule's "Jesus Was a Dreidel Spinner."
"Less food," Shearer quips on the evolution of the shindig, born 10 years ago as a dinner-party gathering of friends in the couple's Los Angeles cottage. It's now a full-on bifurcated concert that opens with performances by regional special guests — "Weird Al" Yankovic and Spinal Tapper Christopher Guest in Santa Monica; Leah Chase and Jon Cleary, among others, in New Orleans — and closes with rowdy audience participation. "We used to serve a huge amount of food between the first half and the second half," he says. "As well as liquor, to get people ready to sing."
That lubrication gets less and less necessary, Owen says. "It remains today that people go out and get a bit liquored up because they want some Dutch courage. But let me tell you: not as much Dutch courage as I thought people would need, because people now really want to sing. And they don't need very much to push them over the edge."
Particularly here, Shearer notes, where self-consciousness always plays second fiddle with regard to intonation and inebriation. "Judith and I were talking about it backstage at Seattle. The Seattle audience, I think, is wonderfully uninhibited. But no other audiences come close to the New Orleans audience for the abandon with which they approach the sing-along and the antics which follow the sing-along. Having been to all these other places, it's sort of perfect for us to come to New Orleans last, because there's no way to follow this audience."
"I spend an awful lot of time laughing and having a gas, as you're meant to," Owen says. "But it happens every single year: As irreverent as it might be, you then get to these exquisite songs. It might be from the Great American Songbook or it might be traditional songs like 'Silent Night.' I do find my heart clenching up. By the end of the show, when we do 'White Christmas,' I literally could cry."
Asked where "Dreidel Spinner" touches him, Shearer, who is Jewish, doesn't break character. "It touches me in the dreidel-spinning place," he says.
Not so for Owen, who adds between laughs: "Where he keeps his dreidel at all times, obviously."