'Christmas in Washington' sticks to the classics

By David Malitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 12, 2010; 11:12 PM

The 29th annual "Christmas in Washington" concert that taped Sunday night at the National Building Museum was a celebration of inoffensiveness. There were cute children dressed as elves in the red-and-green-festooned auditorium. There was Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, the best-selling classical artist of all time, singing "White Christmas," the best-selling song of all time. There was host Ellen DeGeneres making jokes about the National Mall - wait for it - not being an actual shopping mall. When the concert airs Friday night on TNT, it will be the definition of TV-G.

Which is the whole point, of course. Hosted by President Obama and the first lady, with their two daughters, as well as the first grandmother, in attendance, the hour-long concert is all about the gentle warmth and fuzzies of the Christmas season. The cast of performers was carefully curated, with a little something for everyone whose tastes run middle of the road. In addition to DeGeneres and Bocelli, pop divas Mariah Carey and Annie Lennox, Grammy-winning R&B star Maxwell, "Glee's" Matthew Morrison and tween fave Miranda Cosgrove of "iCarly" sang Christmas songs for the crowd of well-connected Washingtonians and their fidgety children.

Save for the president, Carey was the biggest star in the room, in more ways than one. The pregnant superstar opened the show, walking out in a glittering maroon dress with a bow dangling over her visible baby bump. Her microphone was similarly sparkly as she delivered a subdued version of "One Child," featured on her recent album of Yuletide tunes, "Merry Christmas II You." She didn't belt as loudly as she's been known to and stood almost perfectly still at center stage for the entirety of the performance, setting the subdued tone for the evening. Perhaps it was for the best: When she emerged nearly an hour later to sing "O Come, All Ye Faithful" during an all-cast finale, she seemed legitimately winded after a single verse.

There are few performers who exude sex more than Maxwell, but the R&B lothario turned down the heat for his rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." He sang mostly in a falsetto and couldn't help but be a little seductive in his black suit, bow tie and black glasses, but restraint was reined in. He did let his emotions show when President Obama was introduced near the end of the show and added a double fist pump to his applause.

Lennox was all elegance and class for the performance of her original "Universal Child," from her new collection, "A Christmas Cornucopia." It was a brave selection - albeit one that she surely hopes will stuff a few more stockings - on a show filled almost exclusively with much-loved standards, but the former new-wave icon made it sound majestic with great help from the local choirs that lent their voices throughout the evening. She was equally captivating singing "Gloria in Excelsis Deo," which kicked off the show-closing medley featuring the entire cast.

The producers didn't do many favors for Cosgrove, the 17-year-old star of Nickelodeon's "iCarly," by making her follow Lennox and a spirited version of "Joy to the World" by the Washington Youth Choir. On her debut album, "Sparks Fly," she was aided by the likes of Kesha, Avril Lavigne and pop svengali Dr. Luke, but on Sunday she was on her own: She sang one of the evening's sprightliest numbers, "Last Christmas" by George Michael's first band, the '80s duo Wham!, but still gave the least charismatic performance.

Earlier, Morrison, one of the eternally peppy cast members from "Glee," sat on a stool and occasionally strummed a ukulele as he crooned Bing Crosby's ode to Hawaiian Christmas, "Mele Kalikimaka." But most important, he smiled, and all of the middle-aged women in the audience smiled back. If there weren't strict warnings to turn cellphones off right before the show, no doubt there would have been a barrage of clicks for his few minutes onstage.

DeGeneres didn't dare get political with any of her handful of jokes. Santa's naughty and nice list appearing on WikiLeaks was the closest she got there. Unless you count making fun of Joe Biden, which seems entirely nonpartisan. President Obama's closing remarks were also by the book. He made sure to thank the participants and the local choirs and to mention the Children's National Medical Center, the charity that was the beneficiary of the concert. He hit the charity, compassion, goodwill, God and troops bingo and then joined his family and the rest of the cast in closing with "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."

Then the first family left, the cameras turned off and the assembled congregated to the next room for the only thing more agreeable than the concert they just witnessed: free food.

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