The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Placer Pops Chorale
On Broadway - May 6, 2016
by Dick Frantzreb
This was opening night for the Placer Pops Chorale's spring concert series, "On Broadway." But it was more than that: it was opening night on a reinvention of PPC's concert format. And every indication was that this reinvention was a brilliant success. Gone was the song-by-song presentation, punctuated by comments from Director Lorin Miller. In its place was a series of extended music sets, each highlighting the work of a single composer or musical. But that was only the beginning of the changes.
I was first struck by the position of the orchestra: all 14 (the program says 16) instrumentalists were in the middle of the risers, instead of on the floor in front of the risers and to either side of the conductor's platform. Eventually, the lights went down and Miller came out to direct the orchestra, but there were no singers. In a moment, Guy Pilgrim entered and began singing "On Broadway," the tune first popularized by The Drifters in 1963 — and his pop stylings were perfect for the song. But wait! He was wearing casual clothes — and a hat! As he sang, the rest of the Chorale entered the stage, singly and in small groups, all dressed in different casual attire — and looking around as if they were tourists taking in the sights of Broadway.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
Slowly they worked their way onto the risers, except for 12 singers — all on mic — who stayed down front to sing the Carole King song, "I Feel the Earth Move," with backup from the full chorus. Then 7 men replaced them to begin a high-energy performance that really built excitement in the audience. It was a rapid-fire medley of snatches from hit tunes from the 1950s: Splish Splash, Love Potion Number 9, Poison Ivy, Yakety Yak, There Goes My Baby, and Stupid Cupid. I was in heaven. This was the music of my childhood, and if I could have stood up, I probably would have been gyrating as much as the singers on the risers. I just hope that the younger people in the audience enjoyed it as much as I did. All of this, starting with "On Broadway," was performed without a break for applause.
This section of the concert was a presentation of music from Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. That show includes a lot of music that wasn't written by Carole King, but the next piece, "So Far Away," was one of hers. It began with a solo by Noël Shusted, a natural performer, who gave a soulful rendition of the song before being joined by a back-up group of women and eventually the whole chorus. They then continued with another Carole King song, "It's Too Late." As I scanned the risers, I saw a lot of people having an awful lot of fun.
Next was the first appearance of Kelly Dunn and Erik Smith. I only know bits and pieces of their backgrounds over the past 6 or 7 years, but I know enough to say that both of these young people are thoroughly experienced solo performers, and both are on their way to careers as professional entertainers. Their duet of "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," demonstrated not only their excellent voices and styling, but also their abilities as actors.
Noël Shusted joined Dunn and Smith for the final song of the set, "Beautiful," backed by the full chorus. This marked the first appearance 7 grade-school and middle-school kids from the Lincoln Theatre Company. From this point through the rest of the concert, they did a bit of acting as appropriate, and joined the chorus for many of the songs. With all the activity, upbeat music and personality projected from the singers, I wrote in my notes: "This is a high-energy choral festival."
As the applause for "Beautiful" died down, the chorus and Director Miller left the stage and Peggy and Paul Schechter entered. They had written a script to provide continuity throughout the concert. The idea was that they were tourists, excited about visiting New York City, and they gave some comments about the previous set of music and the one that was to come. Basically, it gave time for chorus members to change clothes backstage.
Some of that time was also provided by the orchestral selection, which I believe was the overture to either the classic film or the recent Broadway show, An American in Paris. This was the beginning of the Gershwin section of the concert that would take us to intermission.
When the chorus returned they had changed clothes, but not into traditional concert dress. Rather, they were wearing outfits that were evocative of the post-WWII period in Paris. I can't describe the outfits further, but I sure saw a lot of hats.
I won't try to comment on each piece in this section of the concert. (Check the program to see the 12 pieces that were performed and who the soloists were.) I can say this: the music was outstanding, as were each of the soloists. Furthermore, everything, even "Summertime," had a beat to it, and my foot never stopped tapping for the whole first half of the concert. The soloists were all excellent — on pitch, good tone, expressive. Even the sound system complemented the performance. There had been some major problems in this group's Christmas concert at Dietrich Theatre. But tonight the sound was accurate: well-balanced among voice parts, soloists, and orchestra. Not surprisingly, there were opening-night glitches: some solo mics were slow in getting turned on (but there were so many mics onstage!) and there was an occasional brief effect that sounded like someone accidentally flipped the reverberation switch. From the perspective of those of us in the audience, none of this left a lasting impression. The audience was entranced by the "new" Placer Pops Chorale. So when, during the number "Clap Yo' Hands," Miller turned to signal us to clap in time to the music, we all did it without question. We were that "into" the music being performed. And after minimal acknowledgment of our applause, director and chorus left the stage, marking the beginning of the intermission, and we turned to anyone who had listened to share our enthusiasm for what we had seen and heard.
After intermission, we had a taste of the old Placer Pops Chorale: the chorus entered in concert dress (tuxes and black ties for the men; long black dresses for the women) and Director Miller spoke to us: "We're trying things that are a little different. Do you like them?" I think he must have known the answer, and we left no doubt that, indeed, we liked them.
Part 3 of what was essentially a 4-part concert consisted of music from Les Misérables. I don't think the chorus ever sounded better than it did for "At the End of the Day," which began the set, and I was entranced by the full, rich sound they produced. Then Joyce Scolnick performed the heart-rending "I Dreamed a Dream." She is an experienced performer and a voice teacher who happens to have an exquisite voice. If you'll excuse the baseball analogy, I wrote in my notes that "she knocked it out of the park."
"Castle on a Cloud" featured acting by the children, and a fine vocal performance by one of them: Avery Dubenko. Then who could help being moved by the stirring rendition of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” with strong solos by Erik Smith and Jason Welch. The soloist in the next piece was Lyndsay Barham, not a member of the chorus but its Executive Director, with a long resume of acting and singing credits. For this set of music she was Eponine (appropriately dressed), and in “On My Own,” she displayed not just a beautiful voice, but one with Broadway quality.
Despite the order in the program, “One Day More” was next and Erik Smith was Marius with Jason Welch as Enjolras. They were joined by the children and, of course, the chorus, in a performance that was completely authentic, worthy of the greatness of this musical. And when it ended there were cheers, extended applause and over-the-top enthusiasm from the audience.
All this was followed by the trio of Smith, Barham and now Dunn as Cosette performing “A Heart Full of Love,” and they captured all the pathos of that well-loved song.
Lorin Miller has had a long career as a solo vocalist, and he just about always performs a solo at a Placer Pops Chorale concert. Most of the audience will have heard him do this before, but still there’s always a bit of electricity in the air when the director comes to the microphone. I’ve heard Miller perform “Bring Him Home” before, and with the excellent voice and expressiveness he brings to the song, it has almost become his trademark. On this occasion, he was lacking none of the quality I’ve heard before; in fact, this performance was something of a tour de force as he ended the piece, not on the usual high note, but on a note a third higher.
Without a break, the performance proceeded to the emotional music of Jean Valjean’s death scene. I’ve heard it 20 times before, but it still gave me goosebumps. (I should mention that with Miller singing out front, the chorus and orchestra were ably directed by Vivian Baughman.) From the death scene, the music segued into “Do You Hear the People Sing?” The song is rousing anyway, but the chorus marched in place on the risers and held hands for the maximum impact. And they got it. There was standing applause, cheering and clapping in time to the music as the chorus exited to a reprise of the song.
What followed was an incidental performance of a single song, unrelated to the rest of the show — but it was brilliant. Kelly Dunn sang “The Girl in 14 G,” a comic, novelty number about a girl in an apartment, frustrated by the practice of an opera singer in the apartment above and a jazz singer in the apartment below. It put Dunn through some amazing vocal gymnastics (and acting) while she gave very credible samples of both singers. It was thoroughly entertaining — even awesome.
The music of Disney’s Aladdin was the last of the 4 major segments of this concert, and it began with a brief introductory skit by the Schechters. Then the chorus appeared with a costume change: white dinner jackets for the men and colorful scarves which the women used as props when they weren’t serving as a costume item. During this set of music, Erik Smith was Aladdin and Kelly Dunn was Princess Jasmine. As was the case throughout this concert, all the the soloists delivered excellent performances, and you can check the program to confirm who sang what.
There was more staging in this segment than in the previous two segments. For “Arabian Nights,” the women held their scarves in front them, moving them back and forth in time to the music while the men stood with arms folded. During “One Jump Ahead” Smith darted around the downstage area followed by the children from the Lincoln Theatre Company. Two 20-foot blue silk cloths were brought out to evoke flying on a magic carpet while Smith and Dunn sang “A Whole New World.”
“Somebody’s Got Your Back” was a duet with Richard Rodgers and Don Roberts. Rodgers was sporting a nondescript hat, but Roberts wore a blue turban, which sure looked like it was originally designed for a woman. At any rate it added an element of humor, and both men stayed out front through the climax of the concert: the bouncy “Friend Like Me.” Everyone on stage really loosened up to enjoy this fun number, which closed the concert leaving everyone with high spirits and a pesky earworm. When the applause and cheers subsided and singers and audience connected in the lobby and courtyard of the theater, it was clear to all that the concert’s innovations had been a big success.