Tears and triumph for “When I Knew”

By Karen Hauge March 27, 2012

The Heartland Men’s Chorus performed to sold-out crowds all weekend at the Folly Theater, and their musical documentary “When I Knew” brought the house down during an afternoon of heartwarming and moving musical storytelling.

Now in its 26th season, the Heartland Men’s Chorus presented their spring concert this weekend to packed audiences in the Folly Theater. “When I Knew,” was constructed in two parts: the first was a child-friendly presentation that HMC had performed for 650 elementary students just days earlier; after intermission the program took on a more serious tone and addressed the experience of coming out for members of the Chorus and their family and friends.

The group began with “Don’t Laugh At Me,” a ballad-like plea to end bullying from the perspective of any person who has ever been the butt of someone else’s joke. The group sang with a gently blended and balanced sound that was complimented by unobtrusive, tasteful playing from Robert Lamar Sims on piano, joined by bass guitar and drums. The second piece brought The HeartAches to the stage, a nonet of tightly woven voices that performed a touching rendition of “Not While I’m Around” from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.

The rest of the first half was a program called “Oliver Button Is a Sissy,” based on the book by the same name by Tomie dePaola. Commissioned in 2000 by HMC and three other gay men’s choruses, this program was designed to teach kids about bullying and acceptance through the story of a little boy who is teased because he likes to sing and dance more than anything else in the world. The story was narrated by Chris Hernandez, reading from an oversized copy of the book from a comfy winged armchair on stage. The chorus functioned like the chorus in a Greek play, echoing sentiments in the story, providing commentary, acting as a host of other characters, and setting the mood to great effect. The best moment of their performance was certainly the crescendo of demonic taunting that wove “Oliver’s a sissy” together with “I see London, I see France,” creating a dizzying siren that reflected the nightmare of being terrorized by your peers. Oliver himself was played by Steven Jeffrey Karlin, whose exuberant singing and dancing was effective and engaging even on the small stage of the Folly. The singers were accompanied by a small orchestra for this piece, and by Rick McAdams, a sign language interpreter whose expressive and musical signing was a beautiful addition to the entire concert.

The second half of the program commenced with a more solemn mood, beginning with the hushed and prayerful “If You Only Knew” from Michael Shaieb’s cantata Through a Glass Darkly. Sensitive, lyrical oboe playing by Jason Paschall added another plaintive layer to the performance, which was already heart-wrenching as the chorus performed behind a screen upon which childhood pictures of the men in the Chorus were projected.

Dan Savage joined the Chorus on stage for the remainder of the concert, to wild and enthusiastic applause. Savage, the Seattle columnist whose “It Gets Better” Project achieved runaway internet fame in 2010 as a response to recent suicides of gay teenagers, joined the Chorus to narrate the second half of the concert, reading anecdotes contributed by chorus members about the experience of when they first knew they were different. The narration was accompanied by animation and pictures on the screen that descended before each song, and each song sung by the chorus was linked with a particular anecdote. My favorites from this collection of songs were “Sixteen,” a medley of songs that was fun and bouncy, and showed just how much the singers were enjoying themselves; their happiness was infectious! Josh Krueger and John Edmonds performed a duet on “Pushed Down the Stairs” which was some of the strongest, most passionate singing I heard from soloists all afternoon. The HeartAches took the stage once again, fully tuxedo-ed to perform “Affirmation,” a spunky song about standing up for yourself.

“When I Knew” was commissioned by HMC for this performance, and was a touching multi-media event, featuring voice recordings of choir members and their families explaining when they knew they were gay or when someone they loved was gay. The choir sang well, though they tripped ahead a little bit on the piece’s syncopated rhythms, and the interspersed voice-overs were sweet and moving.

The emotional tour-de-force of the afternoon was the penultimate piece on the program. “All this Joy,” sung once again from behind a screen, was dedicated to boys who committed suicide, whose pictures were projected slowly in front of the audience. The choir performed their absolute best of the evening, reaching a climax both musically and emotionally.  Tears and sniffles abounded for me, as I openly wept rather than taking notes, until a kind seat-neighbor took pity and gave me a tissue, with a look that clearly said, “I’m right there with you, but seriously, your makeup is just everywhere.” The total experience was hugely powerful, and many more people than just me were reaching for their tissues.

The concert ended with a joyful rendition of “Born This Way” that was fun and had the audience cheering, as the singers all stripped off their jackets to reveal T-shirts (à la Glee) with the identifiers they have learned to take pride in, from “Likes Guys” to “Likes Gals” to “Sissy.” The concert was an enormous success, and HMC should be proud of the lasting positive impact they continue to have on Kansas City.

Heartland Men’s Chorus
When I Knew
March 24 and 25, 2012 (Reviewed March 25)
Folly Theater
300 W. 12th St., Kansas City, MO

Copyright © 2012 KCMETROPOLIS.org Used by permission.