The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Unplugged - March 26, 2017
by Dick Frantzreb
I never want to miss a High Voltage show. Why? After all, they're always the same format: about 30 songs or scenes from Broadway musicals. But each show is so different, so fresh. For one thing, the make-up of the troupe — 20 teenagers — changes from year to year. Past performers age out (turn 20) or opt out, and new talent emerges. But the content of the shows is fresh, too. This show, for example, included 11 or 12 out of the 29 numbers that I don't recall having seen before. And then there are the repeated songs that are like old friends, welcomed and even cherished. One of these was "The New World" from Songs for a New World. High Voltage introduced me to that song a few years ago, and this may have been the fourth time I've seen them perform it, but for me, it's somewhere between comforting and thrilling, and I could see them stage it over and over and over.
High Voltage performs at Harris Center four times a year, but there's something about this early spring show, "Unplugged," that makes it really special. Their other shows are take place in Stage 1 at Harris Center, and they're always dazzling. This show, on the other hand, is presented in Harris Center's mid-size, 200-seat theater, with the stage beginning right at the first row of seats. The feeling is one of intimacy, with the performers very close to the audience. On this occasion, I was in the second row, and there were times when a singer or dancer was within just a few feet of me. I could see their facial expressions clearly — and they could see individual members of the audience and even make eye contact. For them, it was a lot different than being in Stage 1, where I presume they could look out and see nothing but blackness. Then there were numbers where performers seemed to interact with the audience or where they sang (and danced) from the stairs that separated the sections of seats.
There were some other differences between "Unplugged" and other High Voltage shows. A live piano accompanied a half-dozen or so of the numbers, and pianist Chris Schlagel was great. There were occasional audio problems in this theater, but even when the sound system was working perfectly, what you heard most clearly was the natural sound of the singer, rather than their voice electronically processed by microphones, amplifiers, and speakers.
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A lot of the group singing was in unison, but when they were singing in parts, I heard good harmony (with maybe one exception). And the ensemble sound was strong and clear. As for individual singing, naturally one might expect big differences among the voices. And indeed, there were light voices and strong voices. Some were undeveloped because of the young age of the singer. Some were strong enough that to me they seemed ready for the "big time." But all had good pitch and were obviously well-coached. But what made some performances really stand out was the acting that went along with the singing. These kids are total performers, and I saw such good acting in the delivery of many of the songs. For example, both of the solos of songs from from The Last Five Years were not just well acted: they were riveting. And the [over]acting in "Agony" from Into the Woods was perfect for that quirky piece. It was especially interesting to see the obvious potential, in both singing and acting, among some of the youngest members of the troupe.
The dancing is always a highlight of El Dorado Musical Theatre productions. And in this show there was especially fun choreography in "Hernando's Hideaway," "New York, New York," "Gee, Officer Krupke," and the Hair medley. But the choreography in "Somewhere" from West Side Story was something else — interesting, elaborate, and elegant.
All these young people have some dance training, and on stage they move like dancers and demonstrate a great mastery of complex routines. But there are a few that are truly exceptional dancers. We got a sample of their work in the brilliantly choreographed, "All That Jazz" from Chicago. And then there was a rare demonstration of tap dance virtuosity in "Fascinatin' Rhythm" from Nice Work If You Can Get It from the one troupe member who is surely bound for a career as a professional dancer.
There were moments of engrossing drama, delightful comedy and sheer beauty. But some of the most memorable highlights were when you got the sense that these young performers were just lost in the fun they were having. I felt this when the two EDMT veterans gave a relaxed, cute performance of "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off." And the stage overflowed with fun when the boys gave us "New York, New York" and "Gee, Officer Krupke" — or when the whole company was performing the Alabama Stomp as part of "Be the Hero" from Big Fish or kidding around in "Be My [Facebook] Friend" from Edges. But the lid came off this intimate little theater in the medley from Hamilton that closed the show. Introduced as "our tribute to this phenomenon [the musical, Hamilton]," it was a medley that told the whole Hamilton story in 8 or 10(?) minutes. The choreography was unbelievably complex, with a lot of seemingly independent, and sometimes aggressive movements by the performers. The music was varied, often with fast-paced, rap lyrics. Taken as a whole, it was a high-energy, heart-pounding masterpiece of performing that brought all of us in this intimate little theater to our feet in a show of appreciation that I haven't seen — even for this fine group. This is a number that should be performed for other audiences because watching it unfold was a unique experience. But that's what every High Voltage show is: a unique experience, brilliantly conceived and performed.