By Sarah Downs

Joy to the world!  Christine Ebersole is performing at 54 Below!  In their pitch perfect holiday cabaret “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” Ebersole and long time collaborator Billy Stritch show us How. It’s. Done.

Stritch in snazzy Black Watch tartan tuxedo jacket and Ebersole in understated sequins hit the stage in fully polished cabaret mode.  An upbeat arrangement of “Winter Weather/I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” followed by a jazz arrangement of “My Favorite Things” set the tone for an evening of sparkle.  Ebersole is in great voice, her youthful sound moving seamlessly from warm belt into a sublime legit soprano.  It is a blessing to hear someone with such assured vocal technique, excellent pitch and smooth vocal color.  Listen and learn, my dears.  This is what two Tony Awards sounds like.

After celebrating the City in a bouncing duet of “Sunday in New York” they moved into an inspired arrangement of “Surrey With the Fringe on Top”  (yes, that one) painting the scene in music – the courtin’ couple setting off at a brisk tempo for a sunny ride, romantic adventure ahead, slowing down for a canoodle in the hush of evening.  Alas the dream must end, and the clip-cop turns into a trot, as the fringe bounces with renewed vigor.  It is delightful.  Then, in a trice we found ourselves on the threshold of another musical world, in the introspective “Snowfall”,  as bright pinks and gold lighting faded to ethereal blues.  Ebersole cast a spell (one of many) in a lushly romantic “I Only Have Eyes for You,” lending the song an immediacy that was totally modern.  It gave me goose bumps.  Similarly, she cloaked the medley  “Another Winter in a Summer Town/Drift Away” in wistfulness and longing as she conjured images of a beach town after the crowds have fled.  The loneliness was so palpable, you could hear a pin drop.  I’m not crying; you’re crying.

Ebersole and Stritch have worked closely together for so long, it’s as if they are two halves of one self.  Both consummate performers, they charm with easy humor, in a loosely conversational patter.  Nothing is forced.  When Ebersole shares Christmas memories, of growing up in Winnetka, singing as a child, learning about Santa, we laugh with her.  Moving easily between genres, Ebersole sings with authenticity in any style, from swinging jazz to Joni Mitchell; from drama to the most introspective of ballads.

This is a universal holiday show, unabashedly celebrating a holiday laden with nostalgia.  All of the arrangements display such rich sophistication, taking unexpected turns that only the truly musically accomplished can handle.  Stritch and Ebersole make it looks so easy.  In addition to writing some kicking arrangements, Stritch plays the piano with authority and a delicate touch.  With Michael O’Brien on bass and Ray Marchica on drums, Stritch’s orchestrations move like butter.  The sound is never belabored.

Rounding out the evening with, what else, “White Christmas” Ebersole and Stritch struck the perfect blend of nostalgia and fun, looking brightly ahead rather than to the misty past.  Directing her microphone to the audience, inviting us to sing along, Ebersole ushered us into her world.  Man, Irving Berlin really understood that sweet spot between inspired musicality and simple accessibility.  Here is a deceptively emotional song that evaporates the barrier between thought and execution.  As we sang long — of course this audience knew the words — it gave us all the feels.  Buy your tickets now!

I’ll Be Home for Christmas, starring Christine Ebersole and Billy Stritch.  Music Director Billy Stritch on piano.  With Michael O’Brien on bass and Ray Marchica on drums.  Running December 12th – 17th at 54 Below (254 West 54th St.).  For tickets go to 54below.org.