The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Unplugged - March 21, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
High Voltage is the performing troupe of El Dorado Musical Theatre. There are 22 remarkably talented young people in this group (none over 19 years old), and their shows consist of one Broadway number after another — always brilliantly executed. I've seen a dozen of their performances over the past 4 years, and these young actors/singers/dancers never cease to impress me. Of course, these wonderful shows are not just their own doing. They all are the products of years of lessons and coaching, extensive backstage and tech support, and the professional polish on each High Voltage event that comes from the talent and creativity of a few key, experienced professionals, most notably Director/Choreographer Debbie Wilson and Vocal Director Jennifer Wittmayer.
So what is it that got "unplugged"? Most High Voltage shows are now in Harris Center's 850-seat Stage One theater. Its big, raised stage lends itself to "big" productions, and it's easy to be dazzled by what takes place behind the proscenium. By contrast "Unplugged" was performed in Harris Center's 200-seat City Studio Theater, and the show felt much more intimate than the shows in the big theater. For one thing, the stage isn't raised and essentially begins at the first row of seats, so the audience is much closer to the cast. And many of the numbers performed this evening saw performers climbing the stairs into the audience as they sang.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
That air of intimacy was accentuated by another innovation of "Unplugged." For many of the numbers, especially solos, performers gave a brief introduction, setting the scene and telling what the song means to them, and often adding a little bit about themselves: a peek into the person behind the performer. And the immediacy of some of the acts was enhanced by live accompaniment on piano, brilliantly done by Chris Schlagel.
The intimacy came at a cost. There were problems with sound throughout the show. Because of the placement of speakers in this theater, there were several examples of squealing due, I understand, to the placement of speakers. Also, the body mics of individual performers occasionally took time to pick up their singing. I haven't noticed any of these kinds of problems in Stage One. Another difference is that there seemed to be less attention to costumes, set pieces and props in this production.
But honestly, none of that really mattered to me. What mattered was the creativity in the presentation of each number and the extraordinary talent of each one of these kids. The choreography — as always — was fresh and fun. And so many of the solo voices on display made for such pleasant and sometimes exciting listening. And though I was completely engaged by all 27 numbers, there were some that really stood out. (See the program.) "Broadway Here I Come" from Smash was performed by the whole company a cappella, accompanied by hand claps, finger snap, and thigh slaps — and it rocked. "Hernando's Hideaway" took place mostly in the dark, with interesting flashlight accents to the choreography. "Breakaway" was an all-dance number (no singing except by Kelly Clarkson on the recording), and it showcased 5 really outstanding dancers. Another totally different all-dance number was "A Cappella Tap" — performed with no music at all, only the rhythm of 9 tap dancers. I've seen them do this before with a larger group, but I don't think I'll ever tire of it. There were some impressive tap solos, but the synchronization of the ensemble was remarkable, and the whole production ending with them tapping off the stage. Very cool.
What these shows present are not just Broadway songs, but Broadway scenes, and what makes a song a "scene" to me is outstanding acting. I saw it all night, but I noticed excellent acting particularly in "I Will Be There," "It's Hard to Speak My Heart," and "Fight the Dragons." Some of my awe of these young performers comes from the fact that so many of the songs I heard this night were just very difficult to sing — not melodic in the traditional sense of the word, but very sophisticated and contemporary in style.
Another delight tonight was the humor. I laughed through "Why Are All the Dysquiths Dying?" from A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. I laughed even harder through "What Kind of Man?" from Curtains. But is was the two songs from Spamalot, the "Diva's Lament" and the "Song That Goes Like This" — screamingly funny in their own right — but so well presented that when they concluded I wrote in my notes, "The audience went nuts." I guess you could call "Revolting Children" from Matilda another comic scene. The choreography was by High Voltage member Anjie Rose Wilson, and the "revolting children" really got rowdy. There was as much energy on stage as in the mosh pit in a rock concert — just with more room to move. Move they did, and it was a kick to watch.
"Our Time" was the only number that brought tears to my eyes. I'd never heard the song before, but it was a sweet tune, and the whole company was involved. What got me first was their body language: not stiff or studied, but natural as they interacted with each other, touching and hugging as they sang. But what was especially moving about it was the sense of camaraderie I picked up. These kids — each with extraordinary talent — work together so well, that I'd like to believe that the glue that holds them together is caring for one another. I don't know them well enough individually to really know whether that is the case, but I want to believe that it is. And this number in particular seemed to demonstrate that mutual affection.
I could go on highlighting numbers that were really outstanding for one reason or another. (OK, one more: "Coffee" from And the World Goes 'Round with its impossibly frenetic singing and dancing.) But I can't tell you everything I liked: there was too much.
This was the second year of an "Unplugged" production, and the best thing about it is that it gives the public one more chance during the year to see this wonderful performing troupe. Whether you see them in the big theater or in the intimate small one, you are bound to be impressed by the talent of the young performers as well as that of their directors. But it's not really about being impressed. It's about being entertained, and in every High Voltage show, you'll be entertained with fresh sights and sounds from beginning to end.