The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento Gay Men's Chorus
ExtraABBAganza! - June 8, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
The title of this show was chosen to make one think of the word “extravaganza” – and it was all that. And people were ready for something big from the start. The Crest Theater wasn’t quite full – after all it has over 900 seats – but the large crowd was definitely in a festive mood. And the excitement grew when the announcement came that the performance would be delayed 10 minutes to clear the line at the box office. Meanwhile, people circulated throughout the theater selling light sticks for a dollar and flashing pins for $5, and I’d say at least one-third of the audience was sporting glow sticks around their neck or as a halo on their head.
The stage was dominated by an enormous representation of the familiar “ABBA” logo (with the first B reversed). It was suspended well above the risers and flanked by thin metallic towers with spotlights on top that occasionally were used to move like the spotlights so common at rock concerts. The word “ABBA” itself was embedded with LEDs that allowed its color to change for different numbers or continuously, as it did during intermission. It was the focal point of the stage and was practically mesmeric. The logo was flanked by a screen that had changing color washes to fit the mood of each song.
When the lights went down, a cheer went up from the crowd: there was a lot of support in the audience for SGMC, and clearly this was a much-anticipated event. Into the spotlight came Sacramento lawyer Gerald Filice, acting as Emperor 40 of the Court of The Great Northwest Imperial Empire (and appropriately attired), and drag queen Felicity Diamond. They introduced the program with necessary notices and some humorous patter, and while they were speaking chorus members entered dressed in dark pants and long-sleeve shirts of a single bright color, with a number of different colors represented.
The show began with a soloist singing the familiar “Take a Chance on Me.” Looking ahead on the program, I could see that the concert consisted exclusively of the music of ABBA, all arranged by Seattle-based composer David Maddux. As I listened to one song after another, it seemed to me that his arrangements captured the spirit and energy of the ABBA music, and most importantly for this occasion, they allowed for the extensive choreography that was part of nearly every number.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
The first half of the program featured lengthy solos in almost every song. The soloists were of mixed quality, though most were quite good, with an occasional flash of real showmanship and occasionally a truly remarkable voice. But the emphasis on soloists necessarily minimized the role of the chorus, and I found myself disappointed that so much of the choral singing was essentially in the background. Worse than that was my feeling that the chorus was overpowered by the soloists (who were on mic) and by the recorded track (used for every song but one). Sure, I was sitting at the back of the theater, but there were many times when I could hardly make out the sound of the chorus. It was easy to understand why this was so. The Crest Theater is very deep, such that the back rows are far from the stage. And its eye-popping art deco interior was not made for acoustic performances – no shell, or other acoustically enhancing features. And then the risers from which the chorus sang were far upstage (because so much was happening downstage). From my perspective, it would have made the experience much more interesting musically to give the chorus a fighting chance to be heard along with the soloists and sound track by having them on microphones, as well. Those sitting in the first 15 rows probably had a much different experience than the rest of us: they no doubt heard sounds in better balance, getting them mostly from the stage. Those of us in the cheap seats had to settle for what came through the speakers.
Featured throughout the show was the “ABBA Ensemble,” sixteen members of the chorus who were constantly out front, performing choreographic moves and singing, often by themselves and often around the four standing mics that were available. Though they were easier to hear, I felt the volume of their sound wasn’t sufficient, and someone should have been adjusting gains on the sound board, as needed, for every number.
Frankly though, I don’t think that the average audience member felt they missed much – because there was so much to see that you could easily overlook what you couldn’t hear. And what there was to see was the elaborate choreographed moves, many exclusively by the “ABBA Ensemble,” but very many on the part of the full chorus. They were cute, funny, and clever. In addition, many numbers featured a troupe of 6 dancers, 3 men and 3 women. And these people looked like trained professionals to me, with carefully (and creatively) crafted routines that enhanced whatever song was being presented. There’s no question in my mind that all this activity made the show much more entertaining.
A lot of the program was slanted to the LGBT community that made up the great majority of the audience: the gender was changed in the ABBA lyrics and some of the on-stage skits had a fair amount of sexual innuendo – to the audience’s delight. But this is a talented chorus – more of a show choir on this occasion – and the sheer joy of the ABBA music that the performers expressed surely appealed to the many straight people in the audience, as well. And I’d say everyone was involved on the numerous occasions when the energy coming from the stage triggered spontaneous clapping in time with the music.
The effort to put on this production had to be nothing short of heroic. All the music was performed from memory, and there were so many choreographic moves that it was a miracle that I noticed only one person briefly out of sync. Then there were all the additional enhancements: the dancing, the costumes, the props, and the set itself. SGMC really pulled out the stops to put on an eye-popping, high-energy event. And if the Friday night audience was as large and enthusiastic as the one on Saturday night, the investment in time and money really paid off.
There was a standing ovation after the “Finale,” but there was an unnamed “Encore” in the program, so we knew there was more to come. Director Steven Johnson changed from a red-sequined jacket to gold-sequined tails as the audience was asked “Do you want to hear ‘Dancing Queen’?” Did we ever. The chorus was in the dark but with flashing LED pins. The dancers came out in exaggerated 70s costumes. And with elaborate choreography on the stage and the audience clapping to the beat, the party was on.
I was disappointed by not being able to hear the chorus better, and I hope I never have to go to the Crest Theater for another choral performance – unless everyone is miked and unless there’s a pro at the sound board. But this was an outstanding idea for a show. I just wish it had been done in a more acoustically friendly venue. Sure I noticed what was missing – mostly a strong choral sound – because that’s my job. But the audience didn’t notice – or probably care – what was missing. They noticed what they got: an evening full of showmanship and great, familiar music.