The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sierra College Foundation
Broadway at Sierra 2015 - July 18, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
"Broadway at Sierra" is big, BIG. In this third year of its revival, there are 51 musical numbers, a cast of 36 (plus 6 instrumentalists and a conductor) — and the show runs about 2½ hours. That’s big for sure, but it’s also terrific entertainment. One of the amazing things about the show is that those 51 numbers from a wide range of Broadway musicals are woven into a more or less single plot. I’d still call it a revue, but the linkage between the numbers made things more interesting. I’ll confess that I found the “plot” a little hard to grasp at first, but eventually I got it. I won’t summarize it for you because I don’t want to spoil the cute surprises that it presents. So let’s talk about the content of the show.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
If you’ll look at the program you can see that many of the numbers are solos or duets. The singing is always great at "Broadway at Sierra," and everyone I talked with after the show agreed with me that there were many amazingly strong voices. And the singers were well miked and amplified, so that even the lyrics came through clearly. The only disappointment was one instance of consistent flatting. But that was far outweighed by so many excellent individual performances.
One of the first songs to really impress me was Don Roberts’ performance of the outrageously difficult lyrics of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Model of a Modern Major General.” Like last year, Guy Pilgrim was a focal point of the show, and his performances were each a highlight. “Maria” from West Side Story was presented by Don and Tony Roberts and Guy, who finished the song so beautifully that the audience responded with especially enthusiastic applause. Another number that stood out to me was “Settling Up the Score” from The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It was a duet by Ashleigh Wardell and Nicole Efseaff, and was well sung. But what made it stand out was some of the best, intense acting I saw all evening. “They Both Reached for the Gun” from Chicago has very difficult lyrics, especially in the hand-off between the singers. That and the staging make it a serious challenge for any performer, but Maggie Witmer, Jenny Richardson and Jim Lane pulled it off brilliantly, and the audience really appreciated it. Noreen Barnett is another performer whose versatility was on display tonight. Recently, I’ve seen her give a dynamite rendition of “California Dreamin’” with the elite chorus, RSVP, and here she was with an equally impressive and inspired rendition of the comic number, “Just Around the Corner,” from The Addams Family.
I first heard Debby Weber sing when she soloed for the Sierra Community Chorus in 1996. I’ve heard her on many occasions since, and tonight it seemed to me that she’s lost nothing in those 19 years. Several people I spoke to after the show commented on how well she did — both singing and selling her songs. That idea of “selling” a song brings up something else. Often I would scan the full company, and my attention would focus on the people who were real performers, who had a special spark of animation, and whose inhibitions were lost in the part they were playing, even if it was a small part in a big production. These people are always a delight to watch, and there were many such people in this large company. Kathryn Skinner, performing “Big Spender” from Sweet Charity was maybe the best example of what I'm talking about.
Honestly, I could go on and on about the excellent individual performances because "Broadway at Sierra" is very much a showcase for individual talent — and there was an awful lot of it on the stage. But I'd have to say that the ensemble numbers were the ones that really dazzled. Let’s talk about the ensemble singing first. For many of the songs that, from the program, appear to be solos or duets there was back-up ensemble singing. That’s one of the reasons that it appeared to me that there was more ensemble singing in "Broadway at Sierra" this year. It started with a cute trio of Madeline Thill, Ashley Wanasamba and Lori Wolfley who appeared numerous times to sing what was presented as an advertisement in the plot’s radio show. There were other songs that featured small groups. And when all 36 performers were singing, they sounded more like a chorus of 100. I don’t recall full-cast songs with more than 2 parts, but when they were all singing, it was quite grand.
Just as there seemed to be more ensemble singing this year, I felt there were more numbers that were choreographed. Amy Wolfley was a key performer and was the choreographer, as well, and I was really impressed with the creativity and variety she brought to her part of the show. Out of those 36 performers, my guess is that there were few dancers, but choreography doesn’t necessarily require dancing skills. There was a lot of innovative, visually appealing movement in many of the numbers. “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast was one example of this, with good ensemble singing and a lot of interesting choreography that (amazingly) ended in a 16-person kick line. And then there were quite a few instances of real dancing. The highlight was in the last number before intermission, “Friend Like Me” from Aladdin. The piece culminated with 12 tap dancers (canes and all) who gave us a really good — totally unexpected — routine.
Whenever there was good dancing, choreographer Amy Wolfley was part of it, but I saw and heard something more in her performance of “Show Off” from The Drowsy Chaperone. I have watched Amy perform for quite a number of years, starting when she was an early teenager. And this spring she sang beautifully in Sierra College’s production of Into the Woods. But in this number, “Show Off,” there was something different. I heard a big Broadway voice. Adding that to her outstanding dancing and acting, she has become a complete performer.
There was so much more that helped make "Broadway at Sierra" so entertaining. It seemed like there were frequent costume changes and variety in lighting effects, both of which helped tell the story that was unfolding. An innovation this year, I believe, was the projection of full scenes on the scrim at the back of the stage. With little in the way of props or a set, these projections really helped to set the scene for the “plot” and for several individual numbers. And a nice feature continued from previous years, was the display of Broadway show posters. With each song being performed, you could look at the screen on either side of the stage to see the poster of the show it was from — together with the original cast, director, composer, lyricist, etc. — and the year of its opening.
Take a look at the “Crew” in the program, and you’ll see the many people whose contributions were key to bringing off this big production. Of the people that might be considered “key,” Co-producer Thoren Tivol is the only one who is a staff member at Sierra College, and his work in marshalling college resources was obviously crucial to making the whole event possible. Director Ray Ashton and Co-producer (and Musical Director) Fred Weber have now collaborated for many years in the artistic aspects of "Broadway at Sierra," and I think all would agree that they are the brains and heart of the project. Here’s hoping these three men and the new addition to the creative team, Amy Wolfley, will be able to continue their collaboration for a long time.
What I haven’t really mentioned about this show so far are the many numbers that were really big and impressive, involving the whole company. “Company” from the show by the same name was the first to strike me that way. “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street had especially good singing (in harmony) and good choreography, but it was the acting and intensity of the production that made me write in my notes, “the best number so far.” Then came “Rich Is Better” from How Now, Dow Jones, a piece so full of action and good singing, that it earned cheers from the audience and a “wow” from someone sitting somewhere behind me. “Murder, Murder” from Jekyll and Hyde brought out the same intensity that we had seen in the “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” Then there was “The Riddle” from The Scarlet Pimpernel. The idea of adding pairs of singers as the song progressed and the choreography in which pairs moved back and forth facing each other, made this one of the most creative of the big productions.
Then, like any really good show, "Broadway at Sierra" accelerated to a thrilling finish. At first, it seemed like “No Bad News” from The Wiz would be the climax of the show. The whole cast was on stage with the trio from the advertisements leading the song, and there was a lot of movement and tremendous energy. But then the energy ratcheted up several notches when a plot twist led to Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock.” Immediately the whole theater was rocking. Guy Pilgrim led the vocals with as good a Presley imitation as I ever expect to hear. Everyone on stage danced and sang as if possessed by that demon rock-‘n-roll. The whole audience broke into spontaneous rhythmic clapping. Cast member CJ Clark broke out his saxophone and wailed, while the temperature of the pit where the band was playing must have risen 10 degrees. Then the performers, still singing and grooving came out into the audience, which by now was on its feet. It was just stupendous. And though the music eventually stopped as the cast proceeded out to the lobby of the theater, it was a long time before the energy of that climax subsided. So score another triumph for "Broadway at Sierra." As I write this, you have just 3 more chances to see this show. If you go, I may be back in the audience and see you there: the show is that good.