Defying Gravity

Defying Gravity

It was a weekend chock full of music,  thanks to the Opera A La Carte gala concert Saturday night,  the Carthage Palm Sunday concert this afternoon,  and a voice recital nestled between those two events that was exceptionally fun.  The recital was a musical theater program delivered by a gifted singer named Brianna Voss who bills herself as a “belter.”  And I must say that she possesses a very imposing set of pipes and when she wants to she can cut loose with a sound that would rattle your fillings.  But she is a generous singer in more than decibels.  She also sings with a sort of open-hearted sincerity and openness that I’m not sure can be taught.   Some singer just have that quality,  and Brianna definitely does,  and it’s one reason why collaborating with her has always been such fun.

Anyway,  she delivered a rock ‘em sock ‘em program this afternoon that combined some thunderous belting showstoppers with songs that were much more tender and poignant, and that’s what made it such an impressive program.  But much as I loved the soaring “Defying Gravity” from Wicked or “Astonishing” from Little Women,  or the gentler “Lion Tamer” from The Magic Show or “Suddenly Seymour” from Little Shop of Horrors,  what I think I will most vividly remember from the recital were the songs where Brianna revealed a comic gift I didn’t know she possessed. . . like “Here I am” from the hilarious Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – or something called “The Alto’s Lament” in which a low-voiced singer complains about what it’s like to always be singing boring alto parts –  or funniest of all, a duet from I Love You – You’re Perfect – Now Change titled “Stud and a Babe.”   In this song,  Brianna and her duet partner,  Justin Pratt,  portrayed two incredibly shy and awkward people on a date. . . struggling just to make idle conversation,  let alone connect in any sort of meaningful way.    It starts out with a painfully strained attempt at small talk, in which the nerdy guy finally breaks out of his silence to blurt out “Did I mention that I just had my phone fixed?!?!”  To which she replies “Really?”  “Yes.”  “Oh?”  “Yeah.”  “Wow.”  “Yup.”   And back they go to their pained silence. Finally they start singing of the Stud and the Babe they wish they could be. . .  and by the end they are rockin’ and rollin’.  It’s a riot for the two of them and for me as well because I get to do my very best Jerry Lee Lewis impersonation. (You’ll be glad to know that I only imitate his piano playing, not the scandalous offstage behavior which led to his ruin.)  Anyway,  Brianna and Justin were absolutely superb and brought down the house.

One complaint – not specifically about Brianna’s recital, but about musical theater recitals in general.   One major way musical theater recitals are different from the typical classical recital is that there’s never any serious attempt to let people know what each song is about or where it falls in a given show.   When a classical singer performs an opera aria on a recital,  there is always a translation of the text  (assuming it’s sung in a foreign language)  and typically there’s also a few words written about where the aria falls in the plot.   For some reason, musical theater recitals (not just at Carthage, but anywhere) don’t bother to do that. . . so the audience is left to guess about what character sings a given song and under what circumstances.  I’m not sure why that should be. . .  and I usually walk out of these programs a little bit frustrated about that.    But now I’m realizing that it’s also a compliment of sorts – because when a song is well sung, it makes us hungry to know more about it. . .  and I felt like that over and over again during this recital.   ( I think what usually happens in these programs is that the recitalist is creating their own plot- or if not a full-blown plot, at least a vague storyline or progression of themes – and using the songs for that. . . so in a sense the specifics of a given song’s original context are irrelevant.)   The best example on this particular case is an amazing song that was a dramatic and vocal tour de force for Brianna – “Around the World” from a very intriguing show called “Grey Gardens.”  The little I know about this rather obscure show is from hearing my brother-in-law Mark talk enthusiastically about it (I’m not sure how he came to know about it) – and from him I know it has something to do with some recluses, at least one of which is a relative of Jackie Kennedy.  In this song, the woman who is stuck living with her mother – a most difficult woman, evidently – pours out her frustration and anger, and then breaks off into this ethereal moments where she loses herself in her collections of things from around the world which give her a means to escape mentally and emotionally, if not actually.  But audience members had no idea about any of these specifics unless they (by some remote chance) already knew the story of the musical and its plot.  Then again,  the positive way to look at this aspect of the typical musical theater recital is that it really requires some careful and imaginative listening from the audience to figure out the gist of such a song – and anything that stokes our imagination is a good thing indeed.

Anyway,  what matters most is that this was a first-rate recital and I felt downright lucky to be on that stage as a direct participant in the proceedings.   And there’s no better feeling for an accompanist than to feel that kind of pleasure.  And I’m happy to say that I have had that same feeling with every single recital I’ve played for at Carthage this year. . . a feeling that I am receiving as much as I am giving in these experiences.   And I certainly felt that vividly as Brianna and I Defied Gravity yesterday afternoon.