The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Holiday Celebration - December 23, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
A High Voltage show is full of highlights. Indeed, every musical number is a highlight, and as a show unfolds, there’s loads of talent on display: singing solos or in small ensembles or as a whole company; dancing of all kinds in small ensembles or as a whole company; good acting to vitalize the singing and dancing; and occasionally performance on an instrument. There was all that on this evening, and it was all entertaining. But having seen many High Voltage shows, I’m always on the lookout for the numbers that are really special — the highlights.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
The first big highlight for me came with “It Feels Like Christmas.” Along with a multitude of costumes and props, High Voltage has access to a wonderfully clever collection of puppets. I’ve seen them before but it’s always a delight when the puppets are worked into a number as they were with this one.
I was still smiling from that song when I was hit with another highlight: the “Sisters” number from the movie White Christmas. It was very cute, with two excellent dancers and all-around performers. Both have many years of experience with El Dorado Musical Theatre and High Voltage, and those years of experience showed in a performance that was a sheer delight.
The audience had its own favorites, and the applause meter (if there were one) would have been close to topping out after “Jingle Bells.” It was a 1940s swing version of that venerable old tune, and the retro yet fresh take on that song really worked.
“Tap Battle” was a dramatic number with no singing: just excellent, closely coordinated tap dancing. I was thinking, “Surely this will be the highlight of the show.” The audience might have thought so, too, because the applause as it ended wasn’t enough for some people — they were moved to cheer.
There’s a gag number that I’ve actually performed before called “Throw the Yule Log On.” The gag is the lyric, “Throw the Yule long on, Uncle John,” except it’s sung without the comma. And the joke is that it might sound like you’re asking Uncle John to throw the Yule log on, when actually people are encouraging each other to throw the log on Uncle John, who must be a pretty annoying relative. The song is full of double-entendres like that, and tonight it was staged brilliantly. First, the whole company were wearing “ugly Christmas sweaters.” They sang a cappella in 2-part harmony and with clever choreography that involved 4 platoons moving around and acting out the song. Mercifully for the uninitiated in the audience, some of the idea of the song was explained beforehand. So as it proceeded there began to be a few laughs around me until toward the end everyone was laughing and enjoying the veiled antagonism of the lyrics.
I was beginning to think that I might have already seen the best of this show when “Christmas Magic” began and changed my mind. It featured “guest performers” Nick Ribadeneira and Emma Magnuson. They were “guests” because they were not part of the High Voltage company. Both have been in EDMT shows, though, notably Mulan this past summer when 13-year-old Nick played Mushu the Dragon. Nick is a gifted performer, and in this number he was the spark that performed “Christmas Magic,” bringing people together and generating kindness in a high-energy scene that involved no singing, and no elaborate choreography but staged interactions and movement that was so entertaining that I thought, “Surely this will be the highlight of the show.”
But wait! The second act began with a number simply called “Rockettes.” It showcased the 10 young women of the cast performing a tightly choreographed dance number that was evocative of the iconic Rockettes of New York’s Radio City Music Hall. They had hardly begun dancing before there were cheers in the audience. The ladies were in Santa-type outfits with lots of leg, and their routine was full of cute moves and tight synchrony until it culminated in the famous arms-interlaced kick line, which they performed beautifully to more cheers from the audience. They marched off in triumph, and I still don’t understand why a routine like that galvanizes an audience like it does, but there’s no question that there was electricity in the air.
Take a look at the program, and you can see how diverse were the musical selections. There was more good singing leading up to “Sparklejollytwinklejingley,” a novelty number that my spell checker really objects to. But I didn’t object — nor did the audience. It was cute, humorous, creative, full of energy — and a little crazy. The performers were having great fun with the number, and their fun was simply infectious.
It wasn’t fun, but a different positive emotion in the audience that came with the performance of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” One by one, the young men of the cast came out singing and dressed in uniforms of the different military services. Meanwhile an American flag was displayed on the screen behind the singers, with large pictures of real service members superimposed. Of course, the audience responded with warm applause and probably a lot of tears in the darkness of the theater.
Big as my list of favorite numbers had grown to this point, there had to be one more, the “Christmas Can Can.” This zany song has been popularized by the men’s a cappella group, Straight No Chaser, and you can find their performance on YouTube, along with the lyrics elsewhere on the Internet. I’ve seen that performance, but they have nothing on High Voltage, which had us on the edge of our seats with this crazy, fun number.
Looking ahead to the last 3 songs on the program, I thought, “Nice, but the highlight list is set.” Boy was I wrong. In “Sugar Plum Fairy” the only singing was on the sound track, and the action on stage was a tap duet with brother and sister, Anjie and Zach Wilson. “How sweet,” I thought because I couldn’t recall have seen just the two of them perform alone like this together. But it didn’t strike me what was missing. Halfway through the number, out came their mother, Debbie Wilson, Director and Choreographer of the show and owner of a long resume of professional theatrical experience. The audience — which was full of EDMT alumni, families and friends — roared with delight. In a moment all three were dancing in sync, Debbie keeping up perfectly with her kids, and with a smile that lit up the stage.
To see Debbie Wilson dancing was more than a pleasant surprise. It was a shock. For most of the past 5 years that I've observed Debbie at El Dorado Musical Theatre productions or High Voltage shows, she has walked with a limp, aided by a cane. How could she be out there dancing? Here's what I learned after the show. After decades of dancing, Debbie required hip replacement surgery, which she had a couple of years ago. Since then she's been gaining strength and mobility. Her appearance tonight was a closely guarded secret. In fact only the High Voltage cast knew she would be dancing. Moreover, they didn't even know until the final rehearsal earlier today — and they had been sworn to secrecy. So her appearance tonight was a surprise to virtually everyone who knew her. It was her first performance as a dancer in over a decade, and to make that return performing with her two children... well, it was simply amazing, a memory to be cherished by everyone who knows and admires their little family. So there's no question what was the hands-down, over-the-top highlight of the show: this was it.
Christmas was just 2 days after this performance. If Christmas is fundamentally about love, this show was right in sync with the holiday. There was a lot of love in that theater and in the lobby afterwards. People felt it, and were very reluctant to leave. In this season of giving, it’s interesting to consider that El Dorado Musical Theatre is fundamentally a giving organization, and it gives a lot more than entertainment.