High Voltage Unplugged - March 29, 2014
by Dick Frantzreb
“Unplugged” hints at the many innovations in this latest High Voltage show. I have loved their past performances that I’ve seen in the large Oak Hills Church and the even larger Stage One at the Harris Center (850 seats). But how would their show work in Harris Center’s much smaller, 200-seat City Studio Theater? The answer is that it worked beautifully. For one thing, the smaller space provided an atmosphere of intimacy. The performers were closer. We could see them… and they could see us. Some acts ventured up the aisles or practically into the laps of those in the front row. And in keeping with the intimate feel of the venue, it felt like almost half of these numbers began with a few words from the performer or performers. They introduced themselves, told a little about themselves, and explained the background of the song we were about to hear. These introductions were all well prepared and, for me, added greatly to the number performed.
Predictably, there were some problems with the new venue. Some were with the audio: often the first few notes of a singer were not amplified, some singers seemed to be consistently underamplified, and there was occasional feedback. I imagine managing the mics of those 21 performers was quite a challenge, especially when they were doing a large-group number. Also, the smaller stage sometimes seemed insufficient for those songs when the whole company was onstage and moving around. And maybe it was the limitations of this theater that prohibited the projected backgrounds that have added interest in past shows.
But none of that really mattered because the quality of the performances was as high as always. Many of these young people have big voices and could have careers as singers. But all are pleasant to listen to, and on numerous occasions I was conscious of excellent articulation. But what sets them apart is their ability to deliver a song, whether going through complicated choreography or standing in place. More than singers, more than actors, they are complete performers. But even more than that, what I think connects them to the audience – me, for one – is the personality they project. It’s totally disarming and often endearing.
One of the many delights of this show was the staging of a song. One touch after another was so darned cute I couldn’t keep from smiling, and the frequent humor had me and my fellow audience members laughing. And then, along with these cute and funny numbers, there were songs with great passion and intensity or simple beauty.
By the way, it wasn’t just the venue and the intimate touches that made this High Voltage show different from the previous 6 shows that I’ve seen. In the past I’ve noticed a lot of repetition of songs from one show to the next – and that was great because it was always a delight to see those numbers again. But this time, of the 25 songs, I couldn’t recall a single one having been performed before. (Click here to open the program in a new window.)
As always with this troupe, the choreography was a highlight. In every High Voltage show (or EDMT musical, for that matter), I see sharp, complex, innovative and ultimately dazzling moves that I’ve never seen before. “Hot Honey Rag” was a great example of this, and so was the tap dancing in “Friend Like Me.” But I’ve never seen a dance number like “A Capella Tap.” It included most of the company, and they performed an ingenious, stirring tap dancing performance with very complex choreography – and no music whatsoever. It blew the audience away.
One of the great satisfactions for me personally is to have watched these performers over time. I have developed my favorites, and it’s heart-wrenching when they age out (over 20) or simply graduate from high school and go off to college – or Broadway or Hollywood. But then I notice talented young ones, and I know they are being developed into top performers. I’ve seen it happen more than once, just over the course of the few years I’ve been in the audience.
It’s hard to write about these shows because I have to take notes in the dark, and my memory for details isn’t great, so I can’t share a lot of the wonderful details I saw and heard. But I carry a “high” out of one of these performances that lasts for hours. And as far as I’m concerned they can repeat this small-stage, intimate format any time. But the June 17 “Best of Broadway” show will be back on the big stage at Harris Center, and like this afternoon’s show, I have no doubt that it will provide some of the very best entertainment that the Sacramento region has to offer.