CHICAGO -- Leave your cowboy hats at home for this one, fans. Martina McBride's Joy of Christmas is here to ring in the Christmas season, but there's nothing country about it. So you don't have to be a fan of country to love this show. You do,
however, have to be a fan of Christmas and everything that comes with it. Replace the fiddles with flutes, the banjos with sleigh bells and the twang with soprano, and you get the idea.
Opening night of the two-hour show on Friday (Nov. 24) was held at the Allstate Arena outside of Chicago. But McBride gave the usually cold and cavernous arena a more intimate feel by inviting all the children up on stage. A giddy group of about 100 kids, mostly girls from 3 to 13, sat by her side as she sang, told stories and welcomed Santa up on stage. "His people called my people," she told the crowd. And when he asked her what she wanted for Christmas this year, McBride said "I want the Chicago Bears to win the Super Bowl." Good answer.
The backdrop for all the Christmas cheer changed from song to song, reminiscent of a Currier & Ives winter scene at one point to a bright and bold Nutcracker scene at another. While the kids were still up on stage, McBride took a break from all the singing to invite morning-show DJ Lisa Dent from Chicago's country radio station (US99) to tell a story with her. They took turns reading 'Twas the Night Before Christmas to the group, who hung on their every word.
With that story, and the spiritual set list, there was never a doubt that this was a Christmas show. While some artists try to weave a non-denominational holiday spirit into their concerts this time of year, with songs of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, McBride seemed to take pride in her Christian roots and all the hymns she grew up on. For "O Come, All Ye Faithful," the stage was set like a nativity scene come to life, complete with Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. For "Silent Night," she was surrounded by hundreds of flickering lights on elaborate candelabras. And on "What Child Is This?" the stage was transformed to look like a grand cathedral with stained glass windows behind her.
But it didn't feel like midnight mass all night long. There were plenty of songs about Santa, his reindeer, snow, jingling bells and roasting chestnuts. Then with a quick scene change, she was able to bring Dean Martin back to life via an onstage screen image, so they could sing "Baby, It's Cold Outside" together. They even bantered back and forth a little, with plenty of eggnog jokes and retro sexist remarks from the virtual Martin.
While there was no band (except for a pianist during the one ode to her country-star status ("In My Daughter's Eyes"), the cast was comprised of about 10 actors, including McBride's own daughters. Her middle daughter, Emma, 8, had the biggest role of all as a little girl reluctant to fall asleep on Christmas Eve during "Winter Wonderland."
Country artists usually score points for interacting with the audience more than most, and McBride did her best to get out there -- literally -- and chat with fans. "We're gonna get a little Jerry Springer/Oprah thing going and see what your Christmas morning is like," she said. Then she left the stage and walked the entire perimeter of the arena floor asking people what they hoped to get for Christmas, what their favorite holiday dish was and which holiday CD was the best. For Kiera, Jenny, Morgan, Matthew and Sophie, it was a night they will never forget. McBride even gave the audience a glimpse into her own home on Christmas morning to prove that she's just like the rest of us, and that "the kids are in charge." Home movie clips of her girls shaking gifts ("It sounds like clothes") and attempting the first ride on a new bike ("I don't like hills"), did knock McBride off the celebrity pedestal and made her seem very real.
And like any woman who uses the season to bring out her holiday best, McBride made good use of her designer wardrobe. She wore a total of eight outfits throughout the show, ranging from office-party casual to formal floor-length gowns. In between, there was silver brocade, black velvet, gold sequins and winter white silk. For some lucky Nashville stylist, this show was a dream come true.
McBride performed her final carol of the night, "O Holy Night," a cappella. The only accompaniment was the roaring applause of the thousands of fans who left the show remembering what Christmas was really all about.
Joy of Christmas, now in its fourth year, will make 15 more stops across the country before McBride settles back in Nashville to spend the holidays at home with her family.