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Richard C. Wall knows Broadway – and voices, too. For years he’s put together occasional concerts involving large casts of fine singers performing bits of this and that, often as fundraisers for cultural organizations. On Friday night, in the former sanctuary of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, he mustered an exceptionally strong group of singers for a Broadway evening of exceptional merit. The first half was devoted to music by Rodgers and Hammerstein, mostly, and the bottom line was a reminder that this is some of the best and most moving material ever produced in America. The second half featured other wonderful musical theatre composers from before and after R&H, including the great Stephen Sondheim, whose 80th birthday year is being celebrated throughout the country and beyond.
Wall’s background and experience, combined with his large vocal studio and the singers he’s trained and coached who have in turn populated many of our region’s most esteemed ensembles, make him the ideal coordinator, director, and artistic partner for an evening like this, which was devoted to 24 selections from 20 shows and several films, too. It’s also the sort of thing that, in lesser hands, could have turned into a logistical zoo, but here the timing of the comings and goings of the artists could hardly have been smoother, so the show was dispatched (in high style) in just under two hours, including an intermission.
The program will be repeated on Sunday afternoon, in the same venue, at 2:00 p.m. It’s a “free, donations” affair, with proceeds benefitting HTLC’s youth malaria project (Wall briefly donned a mosquito hood at one point), the Haitian Children’s Relief Fund, and Global Vaccines. (If you go, avoid parking in the [unmarked] gravel spaces to the east of the new sanctuary, lest you receive a less-than-warm welcome from a nearby homeowner.)
The singers are mostly familiar to Triangle audiences, for many have worked with the Durham Savoyards, Long Leaf Opera, Capital Opera, and other companies hereabouts. The headliner for this occasion was Christine Weidinger, a onetime Met singer whose current work centers on Triangle Opera Studios. Her contributions – “You’ll never walk alone” and “I’m still here” – were among the highlights of the evening, but in truth there were many memorable performances along the way. These included tenor John Oliver’s “Oh, what a beautiful morning,” a duet from Carousel, keenly sung by tenor John Cashwell and soprano Shannon French, and an admirable group of numbers from South Pacific that involved bass Jim Burnette and soprano Kirsten Cervati. The wonderful young soprano Emily Johnston, a high school senior, demonstrated considerable maturity in a song from the film State Fair, and Janie Imperial offered the first half’s novelty – “Wait till you see him,” from Rodgers & Hart’s By Jupiter. Nicole Graziano sang a number from Flower Drum Song, and French returned with a knockout solo from Carousel. Two stellar bits from Oklahoma featured Cher and Stephen Lair, whose son Jackson would steal the show in the second half – what a family of artists! Evelyn McCauley wowed everyone with rich, radiant singing in “Something wonderful,” from The King and I. And Oliver returned with the “Soliloquy” from Carousel, capped by Weidinger’s first production number, with chorus.
The somewhat more varied second half, which included music by Loesser, Lerner, Bart, Romberg, and others, featured considerably more carrying on – to the delight of the crowd. Burnette, Cashwell, and Oliver kicked things into high gear with a rambunctious rendition of “Abbandonanza!” There were excerpts from Sondheim’s Follies and Company, the numbers ranging from an amusing trio with Stephen Lair, Cervati, and Johnston to the heart wrenching “Losing my mind,” powerfully sung by French. Weidinger’s contribution in the second half was heartbreakingly beautiful, but she was not alone in vocal splendor or wit: McCauley’s “Say that we’re sweethearts again” was a wry venture into the sort of material that made Tom Lehrer famous, and numbers from Oliver, Minnie’s Boys, Guys and Dolls, and Hair provided welcome reminders of the breadth and depth of the great musicals that have been created here. The finale of the second half began with the “Serenade,” from The Student Prince, sung by Cashwell and most of the company, serving as the chorus. “Being alive,” from Company, brought back Oliver for his final solo, and the show then ended with Pastor David Hood (of HTLC) doing a number with – what else? – “Get me to the church on time.”
There were many remarkable things about this program, beyond the fine music – music we don’t often get to comment on in these pages, given our concentration on more main-stream classical fare. But, in truth, the music heard here merits consideration alongside those other “classics,” and on this occasion, too, the vocalism was often every bit as good as one might hear at, say, a Lieder recital by some distinguished visiting artist. There was only one microphone, and Wall kept it on the piano and turned off, mostly; as a result, balance was always good and no one blasted, unlike the sometimes painfully over-amplified nonsense sometimes found at Broadway shows. Diction and projection were consistently good, and these folks sure know how to put over a song, a duet, a trio, or an ensemble number!
The concert was astutely managed but relaxed and informal, projecting a feeling of warmth, welcome, and good spirits. Wall contributed to this in many ways beyond his keen artistic sense. For example, he came on with a cummerbund in hand, saying it was too small. Tossing it over his shoulder, he set to work, playing Oliver into the hall…. It was that kind of evening. Beat feet to the repeat if you missed the Friday opener. You’ll be glad you did.
P.S. There were three members of the cast who didn’t get solos but who sang in the chorus and were named in the program. They were Steve Dobbins, Arthur Johnson, and Tom Terry.
Note: For details of the aforementioned repeat performance on April 11, see our calendar.