Christmas in the British Isles can seem a dismal time, coming as it does during the chilly, rainy season. That’s how singer/actress Judith Owen remembers it from her childhood in Wales.
“I found myself deeply depressed at Christmas and needed an antidote to the whole thing,” Owen said. And so, with her American-born husband, actor/humorist Harry Shearer, they decided to throw a party for their equally talented friends in their home and enjoy the camaraderie.
Word of their lively private house party spread widely and quickly and, 10 years ago, it went public, via the theatrical stage.
Their production, “Christmas Without Tears” (subtitled “Does this Tree Make Me Look Fat?”) returns to Le Petit Theatre for one night only, Wednesday, Dec. 23, at 7:30 p.m.
As Owen and Shearer explained, they and comedy producer Rob Long (“who’s also a fantastic cook,” according to Owen) invited their showbiz and musician friends over for a Christmas dinner, after which they gathered around the piano and sang, told jokes and stories and laughed.
“It became a party that just got bigger and bigger every year and was just the greatest antidote to Christmas that we could ever find,” Owen said.
And then, she said, a woman who booked shows into the Walt Disney Concert Hall heard about the party and asked if they had ever thought of taking it into a theater.
“We thought about it and could see a reason why we should,” Owen said. It was first staged just after Hurricane Katrina and helped raise money for the New Orleans Musicians Clinic Foundation.
“We’ve been doing it and raising money for charity ever since,” Owen said. “We could have an amazingly reverent and irreverent evening of joy and fun and laughter and we’re raising money for good causes.”
The Dec. 23 staging is for the benefit of Le Petit.
The couple, who have a home in the French Quarter as well as in other locations, have invited a stellar group of local musicians and other performers to share the stage with them, including actor John Goodman, who also has a home here.
In addition to Goodman, other invitees include vocalists Topsy Chapman (with her Solid Harmony vocal group) and John Boutte; pianist/vocalists Tom McDermott and Davell Crawford; saxophonist Aurora Nealand; guitarist Phil De Gruy; clarinetist Evan Christopher; cellist Helen Gillet; and husband and wife Matt Perrine on sousaphone and Debbie Davis on vocals and ukulele. Other “surprise guests” also will be announced at the event, and they too will perform, Shearer said.
The two of them will be dressed in Christmas attire, and they, too, will perform.
“In each city where we do the show — New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and New Orleans — we gather our musical and/or our comedy friends in that city,” Shearer said.
“It’s a show that has that sense of ‘We’ve just invited our friends over,’ and we make the stage look as much like our living room at Christmastime as possible. And then, in the second half, after everybody has done one or two songs or bits, Judith forces the audience to sing Christmas carols and gives them really wretched prizes.”
The audience is divided into twelve sections and each section not only sings a verse from “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” they compete to do it the most creatively. The winning sections receive “wretched prizes” such as “Happy Birthday Jesus” coloring books and others that are scatological and can’t be described in print.
Much of the action on stage will be more spontaneous than scripted, Shearer explained, and, as he does every year, he will sing a political commentary he has written for the occasion.
Summing up the intent of the show, Owen said, “The whole point of this is to try and remind people of what Christmas is meant to be about. Like Thanksgiving, Christmas is meant to be about people getting together and enjoying each other’s company. Or, as someone once said, ‘Christmas is about being around the ones you love ... and even family.’ ”