Review: OC Welcomes Weekend Holiday Concerts from Megan Hilty and Linda Eder

A pair of Christmas-themed solo concerts from Vocal Heavy-Hitters Megan Hilty and Linda Eder provided OC with some up-close Broadway Divaliciousness

By: Jan. 05, 2024
Review: OC Welcomes Weekend Holiday Concerts from Megan Hilty and Linda Eder

Southern California audiences—well, mainly those close to Orange County, CA—had the rare opportunity recently to enjoy not one but two very lovely, Broadway-honed talents returning to our little corner of the world to offer holiday-themed concerts during the same starry third weekend of December, 2023.

Over at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, the effervescent, Tony Award-nominated stage-and-screen favorite Megan Hilty—best known for her iconic roles as Glinda in WICKED, Dora Lee in 9 TO 5 - THE MUSICAL, and, most of all, as Ivy Lynn in the cult musical TV series Smash—presented a fun and festive intimate concert she called "A Merry Little Christmas," a charming and sometimes cheeky hybrid of Broadway and Christmas tunes (plus some of her expected hilarious banter) for her beguiling 3-night Cabaret Series engagement at the Samueli Theater that opened Thursday, December 14.

Meanwhile, a few freeway exits south at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, genre-jumping power-belter Linda Eder—who first made a splash on Broadway playing Lucy in the original company of her ex-husband Frank Wildhorn's musical JEKYLL & HYDE, and has become a constant concert staple on stages worldwide ever since—made a triumphant, nearly sold-out return to the OC with her own one-night-only Christmas show titled "Christmas Stays the Same" on Friday, December 15, complete with a picturesque ski lodge/palace set, a rousing band, and flawless whistle tones that would make even self-proclaimed Christmas Queen Mariah Carey a little envious. Like Hilty, Eder also offered a mixture of holiday songs (she has released two Christmas albums, after all) and a few standards and personal favorites she has recorded in the past, giving her rabid fans the best of both of her musical worlds.

These two singular, extraordinarily talented women—separated by age and their own  specific followings from disparate generations of theater/cabaret fans that may or may not possibly cross paths—definitely lured their own target audiences to their respective shows, each offering their own signature talents that can, as I can personally attest, be appreciated in equal measures.

The fact that both of these spectacular, empowered vocalists had Christmas shows in the OC during the same weekend was certainly a wonderful, remarkable coincidence, and, in fact, I was only slightly surprised to see a lot of the same audience members attend both concerts (I attended Eder's show at the Barclay first then caught Hilty's final night at the Samueli).

Hilty's show at the Samueli was certainly the more intimate, stripped-down of the two shows, considering the cabaret-like venue has a much smaller footprint overall, and featured a smattering of four-person tables lit only by small tealight candles that all surrounded a small stage. Hilty was accompanied on stage by an awesome four-man band that consisted of her Grammy Award-nominated musical director Matt Cusson behind the piano (sans sheet music!), Chris Loftlin on bass, Jack DeBoe on percussion/drums, and her own hubby Brian Gallagher—whom she giddily outed early in the program as a former Rum Tum Tugger in CATS—on electric guitar.

Hilty's setlist—smartly curated to best represent her vocal and acting range, as well as her flair for adorkable comedy—included not only tracks from her live-recorded Christmas album (where the concert gets its title) but also a large helping of tracks paying homage to her idol Dolly Parton as well as crowd-favorite throwbacks from her star-making turn on Smash.

She also took time to acknowledge the devastating personal tragedy that happened to her family last year, which initially froze her from performing, but can now look toward as a source of strength and perseverance. This moment of vulnerability gave way to what I now consider to be the best version of Parton's "Hard Candy Christmas" I have ever heard in my life. Seriously, it was amazing.

Dressed in a body-hugging sparkly gold gown that would make Marilyn Monroe herself very proud, Hilty and her infectious wide beam of a smile kicked off her show with a spirited "Man with the Bag" followed by a diva-smash turn singing "They Just Keep Moving the Line" from Smash, which, naturally, elicited loud cheers (she will later duet with Cusson on "That's Life," which was also a significant moment from the series).

"For those of you who don't know me," she humbly posits, "don't worry, we'll be best friends after tonight!"

She wasn't kidding. For those in the audience who had no idea who she was before they sat down (a lot of patrons who subscribe to the Center's Cabaret Series often don't realize the Broadway-caliber talent they're getting to see up-close), they were surely going to Google the heck out of her when they got home.

The evening's repertoire, of course, included the expected holiday classics, but with a heavy dollop of Hilty's sauce: a sultry "Jingle Bells," a swing-tastic "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," a truly lovely "Christmas Song," and, perhaps, the most hauntingly gorgeous version of Joni Mitchell's "River" I have heard in a long time. Her mashup of "Santa Baby" and "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" reiterates her unmistakable ability to channel Marilyn Monroe (the "role" her actress character earns in Smash), while "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" proved she can take a classic and make it her own.

Hilty, without a doubt, is one funny gal, offering the audience plenty of madcap recollections from her performing past. Despite the lovely sincerity in the song "A Place Called Home" (with her hubby Brian soloing on guitar), she prefaced it by recalling the time she got to sing this original holiday song for her debut on the annual NBC-aired Rockefeller Center tree-lighting show, and the traumatic challenge she had to overcome while the cameras kept rolling.

"If you don't believe me, you can search for the video online and watch my panicked face when the song starts!" she admitted, talking about the misheard cue.

Later Megan and Brian had the audience chuckling during their country-fied mash-up of "Blue Christmas" and, um, Brian's favorite holiday song, apparently, "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer."

What's also cool to note is that with this holiday show, we got to see Hilty perform as herself solo right before she moves back to New York in 2024 to star in the forthcoming Broadway musical stage adaptation of Robert Zemeckis' cult movie comedy DEATH BECOMES HER opposite Jennifer Simard (out-of-town tryouts begin this Spring in Chicago).

Sadly, the audience didn't get to hear her reprise songs from Broadway's WICKED, but we do get a wonderful reprise of "Backwoods Barbie" (with Dolly's country twang!) from 9 to 5 THE MUSICAL that once again proved why she was cast to play Dolly's part from the hit movie on Broadway in the first place. The song triggered a very fun memory for her when the musical had its pre-Broadway run at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles: while the crew repaired a complicated broken set piece that stopped the show in the middle of Act 1, Dolly herself came up from the audience and got on stage to spontaneously entertain the crowd to everyone's surprise and delight.

But by far my favorite funny bit she did during the concert was her admission that she hated the whole pretense of a walk-off after the traditional "end" of a show, and then having to come back on stage to do an encore, when audiences know perfectly well that it was about to happen. She implored for us to allow her to just stay a bit on stage for a beat, so that she didn't have to go all the way down a flight of stairs, and then come back up again center stage to do her "encore."

"Why do we need to pretend?" she asked, agreeing with everyone that the last song is never truly "the last song."

With a wink, the adoring crowd gave her a standing ovation after her "last" song, then sat back down to hear her do an exquisite rendition of "Count Your Blessings" from White Christmas.

Like she promised, everyone there wanted to be her best friend.

While the talented Miss Hilty was brimming with sassy, cheeky charm in her Costa Mesa engagement, the seasoned Miss Eder exuded approachable class in her two-hour OC concert (with no intermission!) over in the city of Irvine.

Though Eder is a frequent concert performer, especially to SoCal audiences, this was actually my first time ever seeing—and hearing—her live in concert, and, as I expected, I was thoroughly impressed. This was definitely worth the wait.

Of course, this shouldn't be a surprise for me because I do own many of her recordings, including two particular albums—her 2000 holiday disc Christmas Stays The Same (from which this concert took its name) and her 2003 all-Broadway covers compilation Broadway My Way—that parallel the vibes of similarly-themed Barbra Streisand albums. And like Streisand (one of her admitted inspirations), Eder's instrument is a master class in vocal power and seamless control.

Originally meant to be a concert back in February, the rescheduled move to December prompted a theme switch, which added a holiday component to what would have been a strictly "tribute" concert to artists Eder admired that have passed on from this earth.

To a certain extent, the concert ended up remaining that way, albeit with the injection of yuletide music performed alongside covers by the likes of Olivia Newton-John ("I Honestly Love You"), Loretta Lynn ("Coal Miner's Daughter"), Tina Turner ("The Best"), Tony Bennett ("I Left My Heart In San Francisco/Steppin' Out"), Frank Sinatra ("Fly Me To The Moon"), and Dusty Springfield ("Son-of-a Preacher Man").

While Hilty's show in Costa Mesa was an intimate affair, Eder's Irvine program was a much grander fete, complete with aforementioned animated ski lodge stage set, a rousing five-piece jazz orchestra, and something she and her musical director/pianist Keith Cotton referred to as a "band in a box," a computer-programmed thing-a-ma-bob that adds extra fuller instruments to the musical accompaniment and, at times, even an entire friggin' choir singing background vocals (the first use of this latter device—on an otherwise rousing version of "Oh Come All Ye Faithful"—proved tricky, prompting Cotton and Eder to restart the song).

After a glowing introduction from the Barclay's own head honcho, Eder came out to thunderous applause and offered an a cappella intro of "The Christmas Waltz" which led into a jazz-ified version of the Andy Williams classic "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." She followed with touching renditions of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "Silver and Gold."

Throughout the evening, Eder effortlessly jumped back-and-forth from Christmas music to her "tribute" covers, which at times even straddled both columns, as was the case with her lovely cover of the Carpenters classic "Merry Christmas, Darling," which she noted was her most requested favorite holiday song.

As expected, she sounded absolutely stunning in her covers of Christine McVie's "For You" and Burt Bacharach's "Alfie," and, later, with her medley tribute to her idol Judy Garland that included "Come Rain or Come Shine," "San Francisco," "Zing! Went The Strings Of My Heart," and "The Trolley Song," which was followed by, of course, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas."

Among her holiday offerings, I really loved her touching take on "Grown-Up Christmas List," which she said often made her cry so much that it had been difficult to finish all the way through at rehearsals (she held it together just fine, by the way). I also enjoyed her ethereal vocals on "Silent Night" and "The First Noel," and her festive mashup of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and "Holly Jolly Christmas."

As for her Broadway selections, I was excited that she included an exhilarating take on "Before the Parade Passes By" from HELLO, DOLLY! as well as my personal favorite cover she's ever done which remains the title track of MAN OF LA MANCHA—a prime example of what she's capable of vocally (The long-held notes! The triumphant vocal control! The power belt! The whistle tones!).

And, suffice it to say, the inclusion of at least one song from Wildhorn's JEKYLL & HYDE was always a given, and here it was the beautiful "Someone Like You" that made the cut. I have to say that Eder really knows how to deliver a ballad with the right kind of drama and emotional chutzpah required. This is most evident in her soaring "Vienna," a tune Wildhorn specifically wrote for her.

On a side note, attending a Linda Eder concert at the Irvine Barclay Theatre (of all places) was somewhat of a surreal, full-circle moment for me personally. Many, many seasons ago, as a member of OC's MenAlive Chorus—which regularly performs at this venue—I once had the privilege of singing the solo for our group's version of Eder's unique, gospel-tinged arrangement of "Do You Hear What I Hear" right on this very stage. Before the show started out in the lobby, a handful of fellow concertgoers and ushers somehow recognized me as a soloist from the chorus, which was such a trippy feeling. And so, of course, I was over the moon when Eder revived her take on "Do You Hear What I Hear" as the fitting finalé encore to her concert. I found it so poignant that the show ended with a song/arrangement I got to sing on this very same stage (and in the same key, too, haha!).

With such stunning, show-stopping, Broadway-caliber vocalists like Eder and Hilty doing shows in the OC on the same weekend, it's nice to know that us locals don't have to venture too far to hear world class singers, sometimes just hours and miles apart. I cannot wait to see who else we get next at these venues.

** Follow this reviewer on Twitter X / Instagram / Threads: @cre8iveMLQ **

----

Photo of Megan Hilty courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Photo of Linda Eder courtesy of Irvine Barclay Theatre.

Segerstrom Center for the Arts' 2004 Cabaret Series continues next with a "Hopelessly Devoted: The Music of Olivia Newton-John" (January 11-13), followed by Jessica Vosk (January 26), Jeremy Jordan (February 22-24), "A Broadway Birthday: Sondheim, Lloyd Webber, and Friends!" (March 28), Matt Doyle (May 2-4), and Lillias White with Seth Rudetsky (May 16-18). Tickets to upcoming performances at Segerstrom Center for the Arts can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.

Up next in Irvine Barclay Theatre's 2024 Broadway/Cabaret Concert Series is Lucie Arnaz: I Got The Job! - Songs from My Musical Past (January 27); Charl Brown's Smokey & Me: A Celebration of Smokey Robinson (January 28); and Sutton Foster (October 5). Tickets can be purchased online at www.theBarclay.org, by phone at 949-854-4646 or in person at the box office located at 4242 Campus Drive in Irvine.



Videos