The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Back to Broadway - September 30, 2016
by Dick Frantzreb
I looked around Harris Center as this show was about to begin, and I saw a large, enthusiastic crowd. But I also saw a fair number of empty seats. How could that be? Why wasn’t tonight a sell-out? This extraordinary troupe of young entertainers puts on only 4 shows a year, and over the past 5 years, I’ve only missed one. That was in 2013, and I’m still bummed about it. Why am I so passionate about this group, and why shouldn’t more people be?
Reason #1 is that the performances are of the highest quality. These kids ― none older than 20 ― are highly trained actors, singers and dancers, and that’s on top of an abundance of talent. They are directed by consummate professionals led by Director/Choreographer Debbie Wilson and Vocal Director Jennifer Wittmayer. When they come out on stage, they sparkle with personality. Watching them, my smile never fades, and occasionally they even draw a tear.
Each High Voltage show is a series of about 30 Broadway songs. (Click here to open tonight’s program in a new window.) Actually, they’re more like 30 scenes than 30 songs because, with high-quality projections behind the performers, they act out the song with the help of a dazzling variety of costumes and clever props. But that’s less than half of the impression they create. What grabs your attention and delights some subliminal but powerful aesthetic sense is the choreography. And I’m not just talking about dance steps. Nearly every number is highly staged, with an extraordinary variety of creative gestures and movement. You don’t dare look away because it’s all so fascinating. Then there are some truly amazing choreographic touches. In “One” from A Chorus Line, there was a point in the number when all 20 performers linked arms in a circle, facing outwards, while dancing and rotating the circle at a high rate of speed ― and singing and holding onto their top hats. It was so amazing that it drew involuntary cheers from the audience. Another extraordinary moment was “Whipped Into Shape” from Legally Blonde, in which 5 key performers danced and sang while twirling and jumping a jump rope ― all fast-moving and tightly coordinated in a routine with an extraordinary number of changes. The triumphant smile on the face of leader of this ensemble when the number ended successfully showed how incredibly difficult it had been.
You’ll notice I said “leader.” It tears me up not to acknowledge extraordinary individual efforts, but I’m respecting the fact that this is a performing troupe without “stars.” Each young person gets an opportunity to shine, and they support each other in a team effort. You see this group ethic in the fact that there are no bows at the end of a song: when the music stops, the lights go down and the performers run offstage in the dark. Even at the end of the show, the final bows are quick, without singling out individuals ― and they’re over too soon for the standing ovation this troupe has earned for every show I’ve attended.
This was the first performance of the 2016-2017 High Voltage troupe, and for a regular like me, there’s a special pleasure in seeing the changes. There were new members who showed off big voices. There were returning members, who I hadn’t really noticed much before, but who had obviously matured as performers. And then there were some familiar faces who are brilliant all-around performers and who deliver time and again. I’ve seen “The New World” from Songs for a New World in many of these shows, and I’ve come to love the song itself. But what’s especially interesting in how High Voltage presents it. Singers come out one at a time to take the stage and sing a phrase. With the lyrics emphasizing the idea of “a new world,” I see it as a way to showcase the new members or those whose voices have matured. The one-by-one pattern breaks down as they get farther into the song, but while it persists, it’s a special moment of intimacy between singer and audience.
Along with new cast members, a couple of High Voltage alumni were featured in tonight’s show. The Sorgea family has provided both performers and backstage support for EDMT productions over the years. Tonight Emme Sorgea returned to the stage to play in “So Much Better” from Legally Blonde. Another alumnus was Scott Rivers who was introduced as “EDMT’s first leading man.” Scott sang “Maria” from West Side Story, and his superlative falsetto climax had people rising from their seats before the lights went out.
It’s strange that I could have gotten this far without mentioning the humor. Many of these scenes from Broadway musicals overflow with emotion: longing, wistfulness, anguish, ardor, disdain, even anger. But overall it feels like the comedy outweighs the serious emotions, even in some numbers that are generally serious. The show started with “A Musical” from Something Rotten ― totally hilarious, with one clever reference after another to famous musicals of the past. Then there was both sophisticated wit and broad comedy in many of the numbers that followed ― to the recurring delight of the audience.
Although the lyrics or situation itself (or the director’s instincts) carry some of the comedy load, it’s the comedic talents of these young performers that ultimately deliver the laughs. But that’s only part of their appeal. In every scene, they’re an actor. I see good acting from those who are the principals of a scene, but I also see it in those far from the spotlight, who are putting their heart into a minor role. There’s something more, though, and I want to call it "personality." You could sing and dance and even try to act, and without personality, it would fall flat. What is, to me, so compelling – so endearing – about High Voltage performances (or all EDMT shows, for that matter) is the personality, the joy, the intensity, the self-disclosure that these kids bring to their performing. There’s a magic when a performer really connects with an audience. It starts with talent but what makes the magic is personality, giving something of oneself that makes the performance authentic.
Come to think of it, “authentic” describes the brilliance of El Dorado Musical Theatre. The format of a High Voltage show doesn’t allow for an elaborate set, though the projections are tremendously effective in creating a sense of place. Great thought is also given to the costumes. (And tonight’s costuming for the numbers from Cats was especially inspired.) And other numbers shouted out authenticity with the 1920s dance moves in the number from Thoroughly Modern Millie, or the overall choreography of “Cool” from West Side Story, or the staging of “Summer Nights” from Grease that worked so well in bringing back that familiar scene.
This show was built from one delightful gem after another, but it was capped off with something truly spectacular: a medley of the music from Hamilton. This show is still playing on Broadway, only opened in Chicago last week, and the national tour won’t begin until next year. So how were they able to get the musical tracks and lyrics and come up with all those staging ideas? A lot of hard work, I bet. The result was a high-energy, incredibly complex number that summarized the whole Hamilton story, complete with many different tunes, some with hip-hop lyrics, and a lot of movement on the stage. It was a dazzling display of memorization, concentration and focused energy: a tribute to the whole EDMT/High Voltage team. So what’s next? (I can hardly wait.)