The Sacramento Choral Calendar
British Musical Theatre - March 25, 2017
by JR Keith
As I recall, my partner and I left this concert relishing the afterglow of our first Samantics concert! We shared feelings of wonder as we slipped into philosophical discussions and constructive, introspective criticisms of each musical number we had witnessed. There were times of debate, sincere whimsy, and tiny bouts of controversy of what “actually happened during the first two numbers” (see below!). No matter what our after-concert discussion covered, we both came to the same conclusion: “what a trip!”
I smiled so hard throughout this concert, I felt that my face may
have forever been contorted. This less-than-90-minute musical frenzy of
20th-century British musicals was certainly not too long; but maybe a
tinge too short. With a bit of melancholy, I admit this was my first
concert with them, but I have great expectations for further experiences
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
Entering the foyer of the sanctuary of Sacramento’s First United Methodist Church on this Saturday evening, I knew I was going to experience something new. For one thing, there was the program. The whimsical cover image with this wording — “SAMANTICS presents a clahssy concert of selections from BRITISH MUSICAL THEATRE” — put me on notice that this would be an unusual concert, as did these words at the bottom of the first page:
The audience filled a good portion of the church, and I saw faces full of excitement as we all anticipated the singers' arrival. Applause began as the 15 ladies and 9 gentlemen took the stage, and the applause didn't end until the Director, Sam Schieber, took his seat at the piano and began with a robust rendition of “Prologue: A Warning to the Audience” from A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder (2012). Wow... for an attention grabber, it was smashing.
Four ladies of the chorus were featured vocalists in that first number. I won’t name them or the others who followed because Director Schieber commented at one point, “You'll notice I have no soloists take bows because almost every member of this chorus will have sung a solo at some point of the concert!”
After the opening number, Schieber welcomed the audience warmly. He never rose from the piano, which seemed odd at first, but since I perceived that he was working that piano about as hard as each vocalist worked every number sung, I figured he was simply catching his breath! Between each number, Schieber read from a script that was riddled with historical comments, quotes, and mini-vignettes about each musical piece. The most interesting part: his delivery! Each of these segues was full of fun with double entendre, sarcasm and comical timing that amounted to a brilliant side-show of comedy!
The next number, “Chorus of Fisherfolk” from The Maid of the Mountains (1917), produced a wall of energy and sound from the chorus. I had a hard time understanding the words in these first two dynamic numbers, and certain voices kinda stuck out like a Carlotta Giudicelli clinging to her part! But truth be told, I sat there with my hair parted from the sound as the men's harmonies melted into the visceral, harsh tension of soli, while the competing cadences of the sopranos and altos seemed to become rival cheerleading teams vying for the national championship.
Here’s something I know first-hand from singing for years with the Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus on this First United Methodist Church stage: the hall swallows the sound — and words. Still, this opera-house-worthy troupe of singers found a balanced bouquet of sound in their third piece.
A beautiful 30's style melodic baritone sang with an extended upper range and performed magnificently in “Lambeth Walk” from Me and My Girl (1937). Sweet blend and evenness began filling the stage with this number.
“There's Something About a Soldier” from Soldiers of the King (1934) was bubbly music and the sound the chorus created was robust yet tinny to my ear. Then “Privates on Parade” from Privates on Parade (1977) made me swell with pride! The straight, poker-faced men of Samantics sang this song with pride and the camaraderie of a bunch of military men on liberty awaiting their shore-leave! The brilliant delivery was topped off by moving their folders down... to hover for a second or two below the waist.
The ladies brought another layer of brilliance to the stage with both “Waltz of My Heart” from The Dancing Years (1939) and “We'll Gather Lilacs” from Perchance to Dream (1945). This was the first female soloist moment to shine with an enchanting voice. It struck me that these women were performing profoundly difficult music... singing demanding chords containing half-step, chromatic modulations (I think I counted a dozen or so), capturing, wooing, and wrapping us up into their world of dramatic melody.
“Break of Day” from Waltz Time (1945) began with a rich introduction to this song by Schieber, a note attesting to the intricacy of the plot and then, “Later in the operetta... she wears a mask.” Fun, anecdotal breaking-of-the-ice quips filled most of these intros by the director. The powerful, articulate, solo voice in this number almost brought me to my feet.
“We're Looking for a Piano” from Salad Days (1954) shone a spotlight on 8 members of Samantics. Think “Dress Song” from Walt Disney's Cinderella (“Cinderelly, Cinderelly gotta help our...”) meets Pirates of Penzance! I felt like a giddy schoolboy enjoying every moment of this number.
In “The Song of the Deranged Miners” from Strike (1970), I saw blue-collared coal miners humming a dirge descending into their drab coal-gray day; moreover, I can’t say I've ever experienced better “doot-doot-do's” from any choral performance! Ethereal moments were wonderfully captured in this piece!
To my partner and me “Nine Till Five” from The Card (1973) almost felt like the B-side of a Petula Clark hit. And by this time in the concert, I was enchanted. The rock-opera character, dramatic phrasing, and Broadway-caliber performances were stunning. I enjoyed myself immensely while being impressed.
“Murphy's Pig” from Summer Song (1956) was vibrant and energetic with a Broadway-quality soloist! “Escape Me Never” from Robert and Elizabeth (1964) centered around a velvety baritone with rich bass notes in which I luxuriated! “Moby Dick” from Moby Dick! The Musical (1992) brought back 8 singers that exuded so much fun.
The rooster crows that began “Eastwick Knows,” were harrowing! I looked around for a sound track. Along with “Dirty Laundry” — likewise from The Witches of Eastwick (2000) — the performance of these 2 pieces, with the 5 featured ladies, had me spellbound.
The quartet of men that were out front for “The Cat and the Moon” from Lord of the Rings (2006) enlisted the other five men in the chorus to pull off this beguiling song. The harmony they produced was mesmerizing and wasn’t lost when they were joined by the remaining polished vocalists!
I’ve never seen Jerry Springer: The Opera (2003), but I felt like we experienced it that night! There was drama, suspense, trashy people, things tossed about, cat fights, fist fights, pimps, tramps, and “ho's”... trash talk amidst possibly the most intricate scores of vocal orchestration I've heard. Presented in abbreviated, vignette fashion, Samantics sang, acted, and emoted the heart of this musical. We experienced snippets of the melodramatic “Overtly-ture” and compellingly optimistic “This is My Jerry Springer Moment.” The chanting song of “Jerry, Jerry” and the more introspective “I Remember” brought to life the oddly wired humanity that desensitizes us to the “train wrecks” of life. “Adverts1” and “Adverts 2” were song-spoofs satirizing themes of TV commercials. The show continued with hilarity, comic relief, and punch lines within punch lines for each melody shared: “The First Time,” “Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” “I Just Wanna Dance” (in which the 'F-word' was used with aplomb and zeal!), “Take Care of Each Other” and the bee's knees ending, “Martin's Richard-esque Finale”!
I laughed myself to tears: it was that much fun. I could swear there were descants on top and intertwined with several other descants. At some moments there seemed to be 100 folks in the cast of voices. I almost couldn't wrap my mind around what I just witnessed! Did we go to a musical? It felt like we did. I left with all the emotions of having just experienced Mama Mia on Broadway, Carmen at the MET, and a high-energy high school production of Grease!
You'll have to go to a concert to experience a Samantics encore number. I laughed; I wept; I was moved. That's all you get! But it was something almost every musical theatre-lover would know and cherish... cherish... well, if you didn't beforehand, you would after they performed it! But of course, don't take my word for it... find them online, buy a ticket, got to the concert, experience what I did, and Bob's Your Uncle!
I must say I'm beside myself awaiting Samantics’ “Third Semi-Quasi-Mostly Annual Cabaret Festival” in September! I feel cheated that I missed their performances last year of In Paradisum, a new work by Schieber. Heck, I’m wondering about auditions if they have space for another singer. I'm sold. I'm buying the t-shirt and a cap; I want to start a fan club and become a groupie. I do believe that Samantics might just save lives!
JR Keith has worn a variety of hats: director, soloist, small and large ensemble member, tenor/baritone, and event planner of choruses from Texas to California, such as FBC Frisco, TX; CCCC Jazz Choir; DBU Chorus; several mission/worship teams; Sanctuary 101; Collin County Community Choir; Turtle Creek Chorale; Dallas Symphony Chorus; Amador Choraliers; and the Sacramento Gay Men's Chorus.