The Sacramento Choral Calendar
River City Chorale
Steppin' Out on Broadway - March 8, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
River City Chorale performs two concert series every year, at Christmas-time and in the spring. But the annual cabaret shows are the highlight of the year for many of their followers. Why? Because they can count on an informal atmosphere, music that is familiar — and fun. This year, the cabaret shows were presented in a new facility, the Serbian Hall in Fair Oaks, which many would say is an upgrade over the previous years' venue. The set-up was the same, though: 8-person circular tables, complete with table coverings and centerpieces — and plates and plastic tableware.
The show began at 2:00 sharp with lively music from the "Hot Lyx Syx Dixieland Band." While they played — actually before they started — chorus members began delivering plates of light snacks. They were all dressed differently but in an array of the brightest shades of red, yellow, blue and green. The band played for 25 delightful minutes, and as I looked around the room, it seemed like most of the few who were standing couldn't stand still: the bouncy music wouldn't allow it.
The stage had risers to better present the 55+ singers, and there was a stool for each. This was important because much of the music that followed was delivered by soloists or small groups, allowing the chorus members to sit down, and making an intermission less necessary. When the Chorale took their places on the stage (with voice parts mixed), they were all looking down. Then, as the lights went up and their 6-piece orchestra started playing, they looked up and began the lively "Steppin' Out on Broadway" medley, eventually donning straw hats. Throughout the show there were many costume elements and props, especially for the smaller ensembles that performed.
I've said that one appealing characteristic of this show is its informality. And that informality was emphasized by the use of gestures. Throughout there was a lot of "choralography" (yes, it's a word coming into wider use), and it was used by both the full chorus and the smaller ensembles. But even in songs where planned movements weren't performed by the chorus as a whole, many of the singers added their own spontaneous hand and arm gestures to emphasize a thought in a song. There was no question that these people were having a lot of fun. And hands and arms were free because all the music was memorized — no small feat because a lot of it, especially the medley from Wicked was very difficult.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
It seems that a humorous skit is part of each of these shows. This time the setting was an "audition" for The Lion King. Two chorus members came to audition as Barney (the purple dragon) and Clifford The Big Red Dog — in full-body costumes. Another characteristic of River City Chorale cabaret shows (and every other cabaret show I've seen) is the featuring of soloists and small groups, giving the air of a variety show. So the "audition" was followed by a 5-person group singing "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat." It was an interesting arrangement, and the audience members in the tables around me really seemed to love it. They were similarly appreciative of the next number: a solo of "It Might As Well Be Spring" that was nicely done by Christina Chappell.
What followed was what I think might have been the most ambitious part of the program, a medley of songs from Wicked. The full chorus performed "No One Mourns the Wicked," "Defying Gravity," and the "Finale." In between, Diana Cossey (with a blond wig) and Kelley Lints gave an entertaining performance of the difficult song, "What Is This Feeling?" Then the 20 singers of the River City Chamber Choir came forward to sing "One Short Day," all sporting decorated sunglasses. I'll confess I'm a big fan of Wicked and its music, but before this afternoon's show, I asked the people at my table if any had seen Wicked or were familiar with the music. None were. Maybe that's why the audience reaction to the medley was not as enthusiastic as the performance deserved.
Up next was a solo performance of "Send in the Clowns" by Judy Andersen. Perched on a high stool, she followed the intensity of Wicked with a contemplative mood helped by a strong voice and great styling. In fact, I noticed that Director Richard Morrissey had a hard time keeping the beat for the orchestra, because Andersen was constantly changing the tempo — for good dramatic effect. The drama was followed with comedy as a women's trio sang "Matchmaker" as if they were retirement home residents and changing the words for humorous effect. Somehow I missed picking up a lot of these new words, but many around me caught them, and there were lots of laughs throughout the piece.
The "My Fair Lady" medley included 7 selections, with individual singers taking the parts of Eliza, Freddy, and Henry Higgins. Appropriately, there were solos for "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," "The Rain in Spain" and "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face." The audience seemed especially appreciative of this familiar music. After this long set, the River City Chamber Choir took center stage again to perform "The Ballad of Sweeny Todd." This was the darkest piece of the afternoon, but of course, all in good fun and full of "choralography." It ended with a blood-curdling scream from an alto on the risers, who showed us a severed head. After a second or two of shocked silence, we all laughed at the gimmick. The tension was further eased by the entrance of a men's quintet performing "Lida Rose" with some sweet barbershop harmony.
The climax of the show was a long set of music from Les Misérables. A women's ensemble of six sang "At the End of the Day" with a slower-than-usual tempo. Then of the ensuing 9 selections, 5 were solos — all competent, sometimes even inspired performances. Throughout the medley there were many gestures to act out the lyrics, and there was happy chaos on the risers as the chorus reacted to soloist Greg Meyer in "Master of the House." The drama of "Do You Hear the People Sing?" was emphasized by the first row of singers marching toward the audience. The audience reacted warmly after this, but even more warmly to the post-raffle encore of "Give My Regards to Broadway."
I believe that what gets River City Chorale audiences especially enthused about these cabaret shows is the humor and playfulness in each show. But perhaps more than anything else, it's that what they're getting is mostly happy music, and on this occasion, as in previous cabaret shows, I think it's fair to say that "a good time was had by all."