The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Back to Broadway - October 2, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
Driving to last night’s High Voltage show, I was thinking back. I first saw this troupe of talented teenagers in 2011. Then I wrote my first review of them in 2012. Since then, I’ve written 12 reviews and missed only one performance. I was thinking, “Will I ever get tired of this?” Then I thought, “Will I ever get tired of ice cream?” No way! Each of these shows is fresh, full of new delights, and I’ll keep coming and keep writing about some of the best entertainment in town.
I’ve said in the past that I don’t want to identify individual performers because they are part of a troupe with great team spirit, and I don’t want to interfere with that. But you can click here to see the program and deduce for yourself who I will be talking about.
The first thing that stood out to me last night was the acting. Two outstanding comic actors were at the heart of “A Musical” from Something Rotten. There was more excellent acting in “Coffee Shop Nights” from Curtains, and “Dentist!” (absolutely hilarious) from Little Shop of Horrors, and “What I Did for Love” (truly moving) from A Chorus Line — to name a few examples.
Of course, it’s great to see productions of songs that are familiar, like “Summer Nights” from Grease or “America” from West Side Story or “Step in Time” from Mary Poppins or the crowd-pleasing “Not Dead Yet” from Spamalot. But High Voltage has introduced me to music from musicals I’ve never seen — or never even heard of. And that was true for that first number, “A Musical” from Something Rotten. Now I’m looking forward to seeing the whole show. This song was wonderfully humorous, with colorful costumes and dancing and singing, brilliantly executed. And what was especially fun was the fact that the lyrics (and music itself) included clever references to some 12 or 15 other musicals, keeping me and my fellow audience members laughing. Throughout this evening, I think there were songs from 3 musicals I’d never heard of, and 5 more songs (out of 27) that I’ve never heard before (though I’ve heard of the musical) — and they were all as entertaining as the familiar music.
I felt that all the solo voices were good in this show, and they were especially noticeable in a number like “A New World,” from Songs for a New World, where it begins with one singer coming out alone to sing a phrase or two. Then another singer enters to sing the next phrase or two, while the first person moves to the back of the stage, and takes a position facing away from the audience. This pattern continues — more or less — until we’ve heard each member of the troupe sing by themselves. And though all these performers are solid solo singers, there were some numbers that demonstrated truly outstanding vocal quality with mature, ready-for-big-time voices. Two of the numerous times when I heard such voices were in “Summer Nights” from Grease and the obbligato in “Seasons of Love” from Rent. Of course, the ensemble singing was solid, too, and I noticed it especially in “Strong” from Cinderella and “Step in Time” from Mary Poppins.
What sets one of these shows aside from every other amateur performance that I see (and I see many) is the choreography. I have a friend who loves dancing. She’s read some of my reviews of High Voltage and EDMT, and she recently told me that if I liked their dancing I ought to see the really impressive dancing in the TV show, “So You Think You Can Dance.” OK, I said, I’ll watch. So I saw one of their shows, and I’ll agree that it’s a glitzy, high-energy, showcase for individual dancing talent. But honestly, I’d much rather watch a High Voltage dance routine. For one thing, the tightly coordinated (or most often simultaneous) moves among 5 or 10 dancers — or all 19 — are impressive. But I’ve come to appreciate the flow in a routine. Often the movements are amazingly complex, but they’re not repeated until you’re tired of watching them. There’s a new sequence of steps or motions every 15 or 30 seconds (or at least so it seems to me), emphasizing the evolution of the story being told. And more often than not, the dancers are smiling. Sure, there can be good dances that emphasize some kind of angst or hostility or bravado or passion — the kind of thing I saw in “So You Think You Can Dance” — but with their smiles these High Voltage performers take dancing beyond the demonstration of proficiency to entertainment that lifts one’s spirits.
I want to say one more thing about choreography. It’s not always dancing. I can recall moments in this show where the effectiveness of the choreography had nothing to do with dancing. There was the time when the company was standing close together and leaning first to one side and then the other while a single person was singing. Or the time when the soloist ran on top of a line of folding chairs. Or the time when everyone, standing still, just rose on their toes to emphasize part of the lyric. There were countless creative touches like these. And sometimes it just gets down to the remarkable poise of these young performers, expressed in the confidence of their body language or facial expression or the way they move spontaneously that goes beyond choreography to a sense of what it means to be an actor.
Getting back to a point I made at the beginning, I still marvel when I see this phenomenon. Someone puts out an enormous effort in dancing and singing in a solo or duet. The lights go out to well-earned applause. But they don’t take a bow because there are no bows until the end of the show. Instead, they run off in the dark, and in seconds the next number starts. And there’s that person from the previous song, in a new costume, blending in with the rest of the cast. Or maybe they just slip in a few seconds after that new song has begun. To me this is a metaphor for what High Voltage is about. So what does this say about them? It says that there are no “stars” — everyone is a star. And it says that you do whatever is necessary because the other performers are depending on you. Commitment, self-sacrifice, team spirit. Look close, and that’s what you see in a High Voltage show, and it goes beyond the 19 young people on the stage to those who support them backstage and those who get them ready to perform, most notably Director/Choreographer Debbie Wilson and Vocal Director Jennifer Wittmayer.
Considering that so much of what these young people do is an expression of a high degree of discipline, it’s fun to see the (apparent) spontaneity when they really cut loose in a number like “Revolting Children” from Matilda (where upcoming choreographer/performer, Anjie Rose Wilson had people dancing backwards!) or in “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from Hairspray. And I can’t tell you how many times I wrote “cute” in my notes… and that’s in the best sense of the word — synonymous in my mind with “endearing,” “charming” and sometimes even “inspirational.” I watch these talented and committed young people, and they’re having so much fun… how could I not be having fun, too?
As always there were a minimum of props, but there were vivid and sometimes animated projections on the screen at the back of the stage that changed with each song. They were the work of projections designer/performer Zach Wilson, and they were very effective in complementing the music and setting the mood for each number.
The costumes are part of the art in any High Voltage (or El Dorado Musical Theatre) show, and that was true last night. They never look like they were taken off the rack after years of reuse — even if that might be the case. Rather, they look fresh — like they were customized for each performer and for this performance. And last night, as one number followed another, I thought I noticed a conscious alternation between fundamentally black outfits and delightfully colorful ones.
This was a significant event for High Voltage, the first show of a new season, with a lot of new people replacing the seasoned performers who aged out when they turned 20. I was particularly interested to watch and listen to the newcomers. What I saw was the same sharp moves in the dance routines, and many good young voices that will mature into thrilling adult voices (like their 18 and 19-year-old fellow High Voltage members). The tradition is safe. With excellent training, parental and peer support, this group will continue to dazzle audiences as it has dazzled me for the past 4 years.