Sierra College Foundation
Broadway at Sierra - July 13, 2014
by Dick Frantzreb
Broadway at Sierra, a revue of Broadway songs from the past half-century and more, has been a summertime institution at Sierra College in Rocklin. I saw many of these shows years ago, and then Broadway at Sierra was revived last year after a 7-year hiatus. Good as last year’s show was, this year’s is a cut above in every way. Make that several cuts above.
This year’s production is big, BIG – far too big to acknowledge all of its excellences, especially the many, many outstanding individual performances. For one thing, there were 67 numbers from Broadway shows – and some of them were medleys. (Click here to open the program in a new window.) Of course, some songs were cut down to a single verse, but even at that the show ran 3 hours (including the 20-minute intermission). Was that too long? No way! One solid performance after another built, especially during the second half, to a high-energy conclusion that had the audience on their feet a couple of times, clapping to the beat of the music.
Like last year, the show wasn’t just a string of numbers. There was a plot carried along with dialog and acting between many of the songs. Building on last year’s gimmick, Guy Pilgrim reappeared as Monty Python’s King Arthur, with Adam Weber as his sidekick, Patsy. This time, fresh from a visit to New York City, they were resolved to mount a Broadway musical, and the “show” consisted of examples of the kinds of numbers they would like to include. Pilgrim and Weber wrote the “book” (along with music director Ray Ashton and fellow-performer Sidney Raey-Gonzales), and that meant a lot of lines to be learned. But Weber and especially Pilgrim are not just actors, but gifted improvisers, and to me, the “story” held together and provided a good framework for the show.
Although King Arthur and Patsy provided most of the continuity, another important character was Merlin, played by all-around entertainer, Sam Williams. His singing and dancing (channeling Michael Jackson, as it appeared to me) started and ended the show. I’ve seen Williams perform for the better part of two decades, and as always his dancing was total entertainment – and full of surprises, such as the limber moves when he kicked over his head or stood on one leg, pretending to play the other as a guitar.
Williams was the show’s choreographer, and with more good dancers, especially assistant choreographer, Amy Wolfley, the dancing was a bigger part of this year’s Broadway at Sierra. And not just a bigger part but a well-conceived, well-executed part that enhanced many of the musical numbers. In fact, the blocking (positioning and movement of performers) was better planned than last year, and gave the production a more professional appearance.
The pit orchestra consisted of only 5 players, plus music director, Ray Ashton, but they sounded like many times their number, and their integration with the performers on stage was seamless. On piano and synthesizer was Fred Weber, founder of Broadway at Sierra and co-producer (with Thoren Tivol) of this year’s show. Though surrounded by talented people, on the stage and in the orchestra pit, Weber has always been the creative spark that ignited this bonfire of talent. The biggest part of the ultimate success of this show rests on his shoulders.
The projected graphics and lighting represented another upgrade in this year's production, and lighting designer Patrick Thrasher deserves a call-out. For a start, there were screens on either side of the stage that displayed posters of the musical (with date) from which the song being performed was taken. Then there were lighting effects throughout the show that enhanced specific numbers. But it was the projections on the scrim at the back of the stage that were truly impressive. Often they represented scenes appropriate to a song, but occasionally they were animated, and the quality of the images was excellent.
This review is in the Sacramento Choral Calendar, so I need to emphasize the full ensemble and small-group singing. My overall impression was that there was more ensemble singing this year. And in the 7 numbers when all 34 performers were singing, the sounds produced were powerful – and occasionally overpowering, though I loved the big choral sound in “Applause,” in “Stand by Me,” and in the finale, “Everybody Rejoice.” The presentation of “Façade” was especially brilliant, enhanced as it was with choreography that involved the whole group. I counted 11 men in the cast, and they seemed to balance the women’s voices, and the men were convincing in the 6 or 7 songs they had to themselves. The same was true for the women-only songs.
In addition to his spirited acting, Pilgrim displayed a fine singing voice throughout the show, and his rendition of “Stand By Me” at the end of the Smokey Joe’s Café medley – and backed by the full ensemble – was easily one of the highlights of the show. I’m tempted to mention more of the exceptional solo numbers, but there were too many of them, with one big, listenable voice after another. If i single out a few, I'm bound to unintentionally slight many more, so I'll just refrain. Suffice it to say that there were especially powerful presentations, delightful comedy, even scenes that were touching and heart-felt. There were some songs that were just sung, but most were acted, many to what I would consider professional standards. And when I say that the show was a cut above last year’s, that applies to costumes and props, too.
As I write this, Broadway at Sierra 2014 has only one more weekend to run. If you have the chance to see it, you shouldn’t let the opportunity slip by. This musical review is full of talent and creativity and overflowing with wonderful music and spirit. It gave me a “high” that lasted for hours, and I’ll confess I’m tempted to go back and see it again.