June 24, 2020

Princeton Festival Presents a “Live Musical Theater Revue”; Online Concert Features Solos from Classic, Recent Broadway Shows.

“LIVE MUSICAL THEATER REVUE”: The Princeton Festival organized an online concert of soloists performing songs from classic and recent musicals. Top row, from left: Erin Brittain, Michael Caizzi, Ronald Samm, Rachel Weishoff, and Billy Huyler. Middle row: Matt Flocco, Mekelia Miller, Paloma Friedhoff Bello, Jami Leonard, and James Conrad Smith. Bottom row: Amy Weintraub, Michael Motkowski, Natalie Rose Havens, Jordan Bunshaft, and Shannon Rakow. (Photo montage courtesy of the Princeton Festival)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Princeton Festival presented a Live Musical Theater Revue on June 20. The free concert was part of the Festival’s ongoing series of online events, “Virtually Yours.” Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk hosted the livestream, which featured 14 soloists performing selections from Broadway or off-Broadway shows.

The soloists chose the songs they performed. The resulting selection was an eclectic but remarkably well-balanced mixture of numbers from mid-20th century “Golden Age” classics, and more recent material.

Online concerts present unique technical challenges. One soloist, Mekelia Miller, was unheard due to a lost connection. At times a few of the other performers’ voices were less audible than their instrumental tracks. On the whole, however, the evening proceeded smoothly, with little lag time between performances. Every soloist briefly chatted affably with their predecessor before starting their own song.

The opening soloist was mezzo-soprano Shannon Rakow. who confidently began the concert with a cheerful, sincere rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” singing to an orchestral track. Composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill wrote the exuberant, uptempo number for Funny Girl. Isobel Lennart wrote the book of that 1964 musical, whose semi-biographical plot is based on the life and career of entertainer Fanny Brice (1891-1951).

Erin Brittain is a soprano with a warm, delicate tone. Backed by a pre-recorded piano accompaniment, she delivered an exquisite performance of “My House,” a graceful ballad from Matilda the Musical (2010). Librettist Dennis Kelly adapted the show from Roald Dahl’s novel. In the song — whose music and lyrics are by Tim Minchin — the title character’s teacher, Miss Honey, thankfully cherishes her home, even though it happens to be a farm shed.

Matt Flocco performed “Bui-Doi,” a somber anthem from Miss Saigon (1989). The music is by Claude-Michel Schönberg; the lyrics are by Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr. Accompanied by a track that included an orchestra and chorus, Flocco delivered a rendition that was both reflective and impassioned. In the musical the number is sung by John, a character who becomes involved with an organization that works on behalf of children, of Vietnamese and American parentage, who were conceived during the Vietnam War.

Brigadoon (1947) was the first major Broadway success for lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner, and composer Frederick Loewe. The plot concerns two mid-20th century Americans who find themselves in an 18th century Scottish village that appears for one day for every hundred years. Tommy, one of the Americans, exultantly sings about his newfound feelings for the villager Fiona, in “Almost Like Being in Love.” Soprano Jami Leonard delivered a sweeping performance of the number, infusing her rendition with body language that captured the sense of joyful astonishment inherent in Lerner’s lyrics.

“Some Enchanted Evening,” which composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II wrote for South Pacific (1949) also expresses a protagonist’s feelings about a nascent romance. Emile de Becque, a French middle-aged plantation owner, recalls meeting U.S. Navy nurse Nellie Forbush. Billy Huyler, a rich baritone, smoothly caressed Rodgers’ musical phrases.

Another Rodgers & Hammerstein standard, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from The Sound of Music (1959), was powerfully sung by Rachel Weishoff. Weishoff said that the classic show is “dear to my heart” because “my grandmother was in the original … she was Sister Ursula.” Rodgers’ melody is an apt fit for Weishoff’s rich mezzo-soprano.

Energetic body language characterized Jordan Bunshaft’s performance of a rousing number from Guys and Dolls (1950), “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” for which Frank Loesser wrote the music and lyrics. Bunshaft previously lent his high-pitched vocals to comedic characters for recent Princeton Festival productions of Man of La Mancha and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Dick Scanlan wrote “Gimme Gimme” for Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002), which was based on the 1967 film of the same title. An introspective opening gives way to up-tempo passion for the bulk of the song. Mezzo-soprano Natalie Rose Havens took full advantage of the number’s melodic range. Her energetic performance — in which she sensually swayed to the rhythm, closed her eyes, and allowed the moment to envelop her — was a high point.

Michael Motkowski gave a heartfelt performance of the intense, brooding “Role of a Lifetime,” which composer Damon Intrabartolo and lyricist Jon Hartmere wrote for a musical that was presented off-Broadway, Bare: A Pop Opera (2000). Peter, a high school student at a Catholic boarding school, expresses anxiety about his relationship with his roommate, Jason. Motkowski was strongest when the melody moved into his upper range.

Unlike most of the performers, who sang to pre-recorded tracks, Amy Weintraub was accompanied live. Guitarist Shane Lonergan accompanied Weintraub’s rendition of Jason Robert Brown’s “Another Life,” from The Bridges of Madison County (2014). In the show a guitar is a plot element; Francesca, the female protagonist, realizes that it belonged to the ex-wife of her lover, Robert. Weintraub’s delicate soprano befitted the melody, which is infused with a gentle syncopation.

As noted, the program was not curated to emphasize a particular focus. Nevertheless, themes did emerge. One was the concept of nascent love, as espoused by “Almost Like Being in Love” and “Some Enchanted Evening.” Another was the theme of transformation from one identity to another.

In “A Little More Mascara” from La Cage Aux Folles (1983), we see Albin — the star performer at the titular nightclub — make himself up as the drag queen “Zaza.” Baritone Michael Caizzi executed the transformation — complete with wig — as he performed the song by Jerry Herman.

When Beauty and the Beast (1994) became Disney’s first stage musical, additional songs were needed to augment the animated film’s score. Lyricist Tim Rice studiously imitated the style of Howard Ashman, the movie’s late wordsmith. An exception was an anguished ballad for the Beast, “If I Can’t Love Her,” which was more characteristic of the ambivalent, weary mood that pervades many of Rice’s songs from other shows. James Conrad Smith — who, like Rakow and Weintraub, was a veteran of last year’s Princeton Festival production of She Loves Me — lent his ringing baritone to Alan Menken’s melody.

“This is the Moment” is the signature ballad from Jekyll & Hyde (1997). After Dr. Jekyll’s unorthodox proposals have been rejected by London’s elite medical establishment he resolves to test a dangerous chemical formula on himself. Frank Willdhorn’s anthemic music captures the heroism Jekyll believes he embodies, while the lyrics by Leslie Bricusse accentuate his ambitious, less noble motivations. Not unlike Havens, tenor Ronald Samm let himself be completely immersed in his passionate rendition.

The final selection was “I Could Have Danced All Night,” a signature number for Eliza, the protagonist of Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady (1956). The song’s title was appropriate for soprano Paloma Friedhoff Bello; she was broadcasting from Madrid, where by then it was 3 a.m. Nevertheless, she delivered a performance that was suitably exuberant.

Richard Tang Yuk concluded the concert by asking all of the performers to log back into Zoom. It was the online equivalent of a curtain call.

To view the Live Musical Theater Review, visit princetonfestival.org/digital-event/live-musical-theater-review. To learn about the Princeton Festival’s remaining “Virtually Yours” events, visit princetonfestival.org/virtually-yours.