By Anthony Rodgers June 16, 2015
Closing its 29th season, Heartland Men’s Chorus paid tribute to the music of Stephen Schwartz with “A Little Bit Wicked,” a winning combination of music, camp, and an infectious love for what the group does.
Stephen Schwartz has found success writing music and lyrics for both stage and screen and remains a standard name in the theatre world today. Under the direction of Dustin S. Cates, Heartland Men’s Chorus had magic to do as the group paid tribute to Schwartz this weekend with a gravity-defying program filled with energy, laughter, and passion.
HMC is one of Kansas City’s most popular ensembles, and the Folly Theater was packed to hear the large, all-male chorus. The sheer sound created by the group is often full and sonorous, balancing strong lower voices with upper notes sitting nicely on top, and all with wonderful intonation. These moments were especially grand as the men sang “Glory” during a medley of numbers of Pippin and “No One Mourns the Wicked” from Wicked. At times, mumbled lyrics hindered the chorus from projecting this desired sound and instead made the songs difficult to understand and somewhat uncomfortable, notably in “Spark of Creation” from Children of Eden and “Just Around the River Bend” from Disney’s Pocahontas.
Unlike most choral groups, however, HMC does not shy away from the campiness that is group hand choreography. White gloves shone brightly under black light to give a mystical nod to the original staging of Pippin’s opening number, “Magic to Do,” and simple, repetitive motions enhanced the fairy-tale innocence of “That’s How You Know” from Enchanted.
The program predominately featured well-known numbers from Schwartz’s impressive and expansive oeuvre. HMC, however, decided to include a 2012 work that stood out in stark contrast to the rest of the evening’s selections. With lyrics taken from and inspired by the It Gets Better Project, “Testimony” was premiered by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus as a response to the bullying of LGBT youth. While the message of the work is important and emotions ran high from the stage through the theater, the piece felt completely out of place with the rest of the program’s pop theatrical focus. HMC does a great job handling works with such sensitive subjects, but the placement of this particular piece was too uncharacteristic to the evening as a whole.
A variety of soloists performed with the chorus, many of which came from the ranks of HMC, demonstrating the levels of talent that regularly sing with the group. With a gorgeous tone and clean approach to his numbers, Kansas City-native Brandon L. Pearson was a standout vocalist. He commanded the stage during “Forgiveness’ Embrace” from True Home, connecting with the audience to present the heartfelt lyrics and sing the beautiful melody, accompanied by the warm sounds of Spectrum, a small ensemble of HMC members. Pearson also did a fabulous job maintaining high levels of energy during “We Beseech Thee” in a medley of songs from Godspell. This medley also included an intimate and well-deserved feature of Rick McAdams, the evening’s sign language interpreter, during “Day By Day,” and a strong proclamation from “Prepare Ye” by Michael L. De Voe. De Voe also put on quite the act during Enchanted’s “Happy Little Working Song” as a braided cleaning bear with Spectrum serving as his chamber maid choir! Ultimately, a swishy trio stole the show, as Wilson L. Allen, Bob Kohler, and Brandon Shelton pulled out all the pink stops—and tiaras and feather boas—for a delightful and hilarious rendition of “Popular” from Wicked.
Sopranist Sara Sommerer took an incredible about-face for the better with her performances between acts. Singing “When You Believe” from Prince of Egypt, Sommerer overshadowed her duet partner, Steven Jeffrey Karlin, and his smooth, dark sound with forced screamings of extraneous notes. In a pleasant turn of events, her Wicked duets with Julie O’Rourke Kaul were entirely on point. Sommerer and O’Rourke Kaul blended beautifully with one another as the singing witches and even incorporated well-considered staging in the style of standard productions.
Some of the numbers included guest dancers to add an additional visual element. While demonstrating elegant motion, a lack of precision and uniformity was a strong hindrance to the overall desired effects. The dancers also gave the impression that they did not know the choreography well enough on their own and instead relied on each other for the next position. And though it is standard for Elphaba to take flight on stage during “Defying Gravity,” the hoisting of a young dancer into the air was uncomfortable to watch during the evening’s closing song.
Heartland Men’s Chorus holds a high standard of musical and camp excellence, and this weekend’s presentation of Stephen Schwartz classics was a charming concert, paying tribute to one of musical theatre’s most prolific composers and the art of being “wicked.”
Heartland Men’s Chorus
A Little Bit Wicked
June 13–14 (Reviewed Saturday, June 13, 2015)
300 W. 12th St., Kansas City, MO
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