The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Unplugged - April 9, 2016
by Dick Frantzreb
Once a year El Dorado Musical Theatre's High Voltage troupe performs in the 200-seat City Studio Theater at Harris Center instead of the 860-seat Stage 1. I've experienced these shows before, but this time I was sitting in the second row, and I was struck by the sense of intimacy I felt with the performers in this small theater. In the very first number, "Willkommen" from Cabaret, the ensemble was at times just a few feet away from me, drawing me into the music and dancing, and making the experience more intense.
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Contributing to the intimacy of this show, many of the songs were preceded by background from the performer. Before singing "Those Magic Changes" from Grease, Connor Ricketts explained that he was reprising a performance of this song by Chris Meissner in EDMT's 2010 production of Grease. His work in that show earned Chris an Elly nomination. Then after leaving EDMT at age 18, Chris went to UCLA where he earned a degree in musical theater last June. He's now 22 and is pursing a career in the entertainment industry (www.chrismeissner.com). You can understand that it is with some pride that the EDMT family watched Chris, a veteran of 20 EDMT productions, sing and dance his way through the wildly successful broadcast of Grease Live! on the Fox network on January 31 of this year. With this background, we in the audience were able to share some of EDMT’s pride in this young performer’s success.
From the very start of "Unplugged," the choreography was alternately cute and thrilling. I've seen amateur choreography in many shows in the Sacramento region. Maybe you have, too. Forget all that. What you get in High Voltage and all El Dorado Musical Theatre productions is professional choreography: intricate, skilled, creative — and fresh. My memory is far from perfect, but in every one of these shows, I feel like I'm seeing dancing that I've never seen before. I take notes in the dark about what's happening on the stage, and it's hard because it's all so engaging that I don't want to look away. One perfect example was the hilarious, frenetic choreography in "Coffee Break" from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. In my notes I wrote, "I have never seen — and will probably never see again — choreography like this." And then there was a new all-tap number (no singing) called “Mech Tap” which was nothing short of mesmerizing.
I may appreciate the choreography, but the success of the choreography rests on the skills of the dancers. Of course, these young people, though they can all dance and perform beautifully as an ensemble — are not all equally trained and talented as dancers. But in every High Voltage show there are a few numbers that showcase the really excellent dancers. "Corner of the Sky" from Pippin was one, featuring 6 young women who danced beautifully. But even they were more performers than dancers. So what does that mean? Through all their difficult, elaborate dance moves their smiles never faded. And for me, that was as uplifting as the artistry they displayed.
High Voltage shows always have a lot of interesting staging ideas, but this show seemed especially full of creative staging. "Hernando's Hideaway" from The Pajama Game was performed entirely in the dark, with singers illuminating their faces with flashlights only when they were singing. Another wonderfully clever bit of staging was in "Why Are All the D'Ysquiths Dying?" from A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder with everyone in black and constantly assuming distorted poses to emphasize the humor of the song. But "Believe" from Finding Neverland pulled out all the stops with an inline skating bear, two performers carrying an imaginary bicyclist, and other outrageous walk-ons. Then there was "When I Grow Up" from Matilda. Keeping with the theme of the song, troupe members played with balls, jump ropes, hula hoops, inline skates — and a pogo stick. There was even an impromptu game of hopscotch. It was terribly cute, as were so many of this afternoon's songs.
Perhaps the most thoroughly staged number in "Unplugged" was the first one after intermission: "What I Did for Love" from A Chorus Line. It was a complete scene, with dialog, as well as singing and dancing. And it was beautifully presented, enough so to bring tears to one's eyes. The idea is that the dancers are responding to the thought that there may be no career future in dancing on Broadway. Their answer is the oft-repeated line "I won't forget, won't regret what I did for love." Of course, these teenage performers don't have to face that career choice — yet. But they have worked hard, and no doubt sacrificed a lot of childhood and young adulthood to do what they're doing. And sitting there, I could imagine that the thought of the song had occurred to them in the months and years leading to this show. And I bet they, too, don't regret what they did for love.
There were many other serious moments among the delightful comic numbers. And this troupe captured the great drama in that cynical song from Jekyll & Hyde, "Façade." Periodically I just find myself in awe of the dramatic portrayals by these young people. "What You Mean to Me" from Finding Neverland was so impressive that I wrote in my notes: "Such mature performers: excellent acting to match equally excellent voices and vocal styling." I had the same thought in Coffee Shop Nights" from Curtains.
All right, let's take a further look at the acting. A High Voltage show is nothing like a recital. Each number is a scene from a Broadway musical, and so there's singing and dancing, but what raises each performance from "good" to "excellent" is the quality of the acting. That was abundantly evident in the screamingly funning "Be a Dentist" from Little Shop of Horrors. "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum also featured excellent comic acting, as well as good ensemble singing from the 8 young men who performed it. As I watched, I recognized something that is characteristic of EDMT productions: the acting never stops. Someone else may be doing the singing, but that guy or girl away from the immediate action or buried in the back row is still acting and reacting. In a way it's amazing how that practice brings a song so completely to life.
It didn't take long on this Saturday afternoon for another observation to strike me. I've heard good solo and ensemble singing in High Voltage shows in the past, but in this show the singing seemed to be especially strong, and I'm sure a lot of the credit goes to Vocal Director Jennifer Wittmayer. But I was seeing something else, too: the development of these young performers. Having observed some of them performing for years, I've been able to recognize the maturation of talent and the honing of skills. There were numerous times during this afternoon's show when, watching someone I'd noticed often before, all I could think was "Wow! How far they've come."
I had written a paragraph commenting on some of the outstanding individual performances in this show, but I just deleted it. Those performances deserve to be recognized, but I don’t want to diminish the contribution of the rest of these 21 young performers by singling out 5 or 6. Each one was crucial in making this an extraordinary entertainment experience.
This is at least the fifteenth High Voltage show that I've seen — and written about — over the past 4 years. You might think I'd run out of things to say about this wonderful organization. I even remember a few of this afternoon’s songs from earlier shows. But despite that, I get the feeling, and I bet you would, too, that every number gives you something you have never seen before. But more than that, the quality of these productions is so high, the energy so great, the joy so palpable — that I never, ever, want to miss one.