Upright Cabaret’s Wicked Summer Nights came to a smashing conclusion with a star-studded tribute to mega-composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz at Hollywood’s Ford Amphitheatre on Sunday, August 23, produced by power duo Chris Isaacson and Shane Scheel, and directed by Broadway’s sensational Billy Porter.

Act 1 was a memorable “unplugged” preview of Schwartz’s upcoming operatic adaptation of Séance On A Wet Afternoon, with international opera star Lauren Flanigan in the role originated by Kim Stanley in the award-winning 1964 British film.  The film (and opera) center around Flanigan’s character, an unstable medium who convinces her husband to kidnap a child in order to help the police solve the crime and collect the ransom. Also appearing in the Séance preview were Steve Pence as the medium’s husband, Hila Plitman and John Kimberling as the kidnapped girl’s anguished parents, young Aaron Refvem as the ghost of the medium’s dead son, and Michael Marcotte—all supremely gifted operatic talents. 

Accompanied by Act 1 music director Charity Wicks on piano, Flanigan and her fellow performers performed exquisitely, piquing audience interest in the opera’s September world premiere at Opera Santa Barbara. Schwartz’s gift for melody combined with Séance On A Wet Afternoon’s powerful storyline are likely to please both opera and musical theater lovers, particularly as performed by the cast assembled at the Ford, most of whom will be repeating their roles in Santa Barbara.

The uber-talented Christopher Lloyd Bratten took over as musical director for the evening’s second act, joined by fellow musicians Aaron Forbes, Matt Lucich, and Carter Wallace, providing musical accompaniment to one of the most stellar casts ever assembled for a composer tribute.

There was leggy Broadway star Valarie Pettiford singing and dancing to Pippin’s “Magic To Do,” choreographed by her Fosse costar Jane Lanier.  Julie Garnye, Arielle Jacobs, and Talia Thiesfield soloed in a trio of songs from Children Of Eden, Pocahontas, and Wicked, all three joining voices as Garnye soared with “Defying Gravity.”  Elizabeth Brackenbury delighted and wowed the audience with her musical tribute to waitresses everywhere in “It’s An Art,” from Working.

Audra Mae sang a touching “Lion Tamer” (from The Magic Show) followed by a rocking Katy Mixon with Godspell’s “Turn Back, O Man.” Broadway stars-turned-TV regulars Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Barrett Foa dueted an amusing “All For The Best,” from Godspell.  Nicole Parker, fresh from starring on Broadway in Wicked, took flight in another of the great songs  from the lesser known The Magic Show, the New York anthem “West End Avenue.”

Michael Arden celebrated same-gender love in a sweet boy-loses-boy version of Pippin’s “I Guess I’ll Miss The Man.”  (Thanks Michael!) Act 1’s Flanigan and Broadway’s Beast Terrence Mann joined voices in operatic mode for “Wanting,” from Working, followed by the very pop “Cry Without A Reason,” vocalized by the always terrific Jennifer Leigh Warren.

Jenna Leigh Green and Michael Marcotte sang a beautiful, emotional “In Whatever Time We Have,” from Children Of Eden. David Burnham provided some gorgeous-voiced comic relief and audience interaction as The Baker’s Wife’s inamorato with “Proud Lady.”  Blonde bombshell Brenna Whitaker brought down the house with a medley from Pocahontas.

Nathan Lee Graham gender-bent Wicked’s Elphaba with a funny/dramatic “No Good Deed.”  Accompanying himself on piano, Matt Cusson provided one of the evening’s highlights with a semi-jazzy “Corner Of The Sky” from Pippin.  Another high point was a rare appearance by the much-missed Tami Tappan Damiano, dazzling the audience with “Meadowlark” (from The Baker’s Wife).

A sensational Tracie Thoms gave Schwartz fans a chance to hear the song replaced by “The Wizard And I” in Wicked—“Making Good.”  The entire cast joined power-voiced Ty Taylor for “All Good Gifts,” from Godspell. Then, following the cheers of the standing room only audience, Schwartz moved many to tears with a solo rendition of Wicked’s “For Good,” accompanying himself on piano.

Paraphrasing a Schwartz lyric, the performers at the Ford were not just making good on Sunday night.  They were making great, one and all.

–Steven Stanley
August 23, 2009

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