The weather outside may be frightful, but Matt Conner’s peppy, rich piano playing and his group of eclectic friends makes certain that you knew nothing of it. In an hour-long cabaret-style performance on Wednesday night at the ARK at the Signature Theatre, composer Matt Conner transported audiences to a world of sleigh bells, mistletoe, and snowmen with his unique piano style and the accompanying voices of some of Signature Theatre’s brightest stars.
Conner—wearing a pair of skin-tight leopard print pants—sat on a piano on the left of the stage directly facing his superstar castmates who were plopped on a couch on the right of the stage. With a giant, decorated Christmas tree in the middle of the stage with presents underneath as a simple, but festive backdrop (and a Menorah and Kinara of course), Conner and the small four-piece orchestra situated behind him played a mix of traditional holiday songs and new holiday creations from one of Conner’s upcoming Christmas musicals.
Signature bills the evening as “Composer and Signature favorite Matt Conner (Snow, Winter, Icicle) salutes the holidays with his unique piano style,” and Matt Conner’s interpretation of Christmas songs is just that: unique. He is able to tactfully reinvent songs that are all too familiar: for instance, Chris Sizemore (Miss Saigon, and Crossing) breathed new life into “O Holy Night” by singing it with Conner’s minor-key arrangement. The performance—which walked the line between chilling and comforting—was typical of the evening: it forced one to reimagine the Christmas songs that many of us grew up with, which was a process that was at once uncomfortable, but refreshing.
One of the most interesting portions of the show for me was when each individual cast member would share a bit about their holiday traditions. Kara-Tameika Watkins (Dreamgirls) opened by sharing a bit about the oft-misconstrued celebration of Kwanzaa, and proceeded to lead the audience in singing a call-and-answer tune called “Kwanzee is Here.” Her song, which opened the evening, was informative, but also enjoyable. The inclusive set list was useful in reminding us that, despite various cultural backgrounds, music can unite all of us in common celebration. The incorporation of a raffle throughout the evening and the castmates serving as a living backdrop on a couch with a fireplace reinforced the message of unity.
Special guests for the evening also included Jamie Eacker (Company), Christopher Mueller (Miss Saigon, Crossing), Stephen Gregory Smith (The Boy Detective Fails, Miss Saigon), Dani Stoller, and Stephanie Waters Thompson, who each took to the stage to sing their tribute to the holiday season.
The absolute highlight for me was when the cast came together to perform a number from Conner’s upcoming Christmas musical, in which members of a church come together to perform a Christmas pageant to raise money. The hilarious sketch was warm, kitchy, and reminded us that these performers are not only singers, but also talented actors/actresses with impeccable comedic timing.
The Washington Post describes Conner’s writing as “romantic music” that is “ablaze with feeling” and Conner’s work lived up to the hype. His direction of “Children, Go Where I Send Thee”—a traditional African-American spiritual song—was the song of the night for me, where we are able to see the powerful sound of the group singing in unison, while also hearing the distinct voices of each one of the cast members.
Running Time: Approximately one hour, with no intermission.