Everything about TNT’s family-friendly “Christmas in Washington” concert is classy and lovely and perfectly planned, like a present neatly wrapped with a big red bow. So that’s why it was surprising when Hugh Jackman — who boasted he was the first Australian to host the annual show — hinted at something even vaguely controversial.
“Santa is also from overseas — and that’s a fact,” Jackman said during his opening monologue, presumably referring to the “debate” that erupted on Fox News last week over the color of Santa’s skin. The line did not get a big response from the crowd in the festively decorated National Building Museum, where President Obama and the first family were in attendance; there was some scattered laughter, and a few “ooohs.” Jackman paused. “Not for the kids,” he admitted.
And that was the end of topical humor. Of course, the remark escaped the many children in attendance Sunday night, who were dressed in their holiday best, accompanied by parents, there to watch celebrities sing Christmas carols. Always a jumble of genres and styles, this year’s lineup included pop star turned trying-to-be-country-songstress Sheryl Crow; R&B siren Janelle Monae; actress and “Cups” singer Anna Kendrick; always-reliable Train frontman Pat Monahan; and the group that landed a “special appearance” billing, the Backstreet Boys.
“Boys” may not be the proper term for the former teenybopper superstars at this point. Brian Littrell’s pushing 40, A.J. McClean’s on his way, and Howie Dorough and Kevin Richardson are already there. It was quite the throwback to see them all together again, though; the dapper quintet gamely kicked off the show with “Christmas Time,” offering well-rehearsed harmonies and trading off lead vocals. Backed by a choir, they still embraced cheesy dancing — particularly Nick Carter, who was really into it.
Also showing off moves: the Washington Youth Choir, with a particularly rousing rendition of “Come Tell It on the Mountain,” complete with a choreographed mini-dance routine. It was delightful, and a nice shot of energy compared with soaring but slower songs from Crow (“Please Come Home for Christmas,” “O Holy Night”) and Kendrick (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Silent Night”).
The feel-good event, which supports the Children’s National Health System and will air on TNT Friday, also featured Monahan’s vocal aerobics on “Merry Christmas Baby” and a spirited “This Christmas” courtesy of Monae. As usual, the grand finale was a group performance featuring all of the artists, along with the president, first lady, Malia and Sasha, who arrived onstage to dole out hugs and join in a mass singalong to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” President Obama spoke for a few minutes about the spirit of the season, and threw in a joke about Jackman’s movie alter ego, thanking him for “leaving the Wolverine claws at home.”
One element of the seamless broadcast became glaringly apparent: Jackman is not a comedian. In recent years, hosts Conan O’Brien and Ellen DeGeneres kept the crowds laughing. Not so much this time. Jackman’s stilted delivery was almost a relief, however: Someone that strikingly attractive does have a flaw.
Because, oh right, he can sing. Beautifully. And he did, during the finale, belting out “Angels We Have Heard on High,” joining the first family and artists in capping off the warm and fuzzy night — but, as any celebrity should, only after plugging “The Wolverine” on DVD.
(one hour) airs Friday at 8 p.m. on TNT.