Reviewed by Chris Cassone
The advance PR about So Many Stars informs us that it is "about so much more than just the season." This was evident as soon as we entered the Theater West facility on Sunday with its sixty-one years of productions under its belt.
A friendly quartet of sight-singers greeted us with carols, amazingly, some were Christian. Yes, it is hard to hear "that ol' time religion" anymore in this secular age but it was a joy to witness. Instantly, we were escorted into the Christmas season with "Silent Night" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem."
The grey-haired seniors who enriched our waiting time continued as we were ushered into the main theater. There is always that moment when you realize Christmas is coming. That was it for me.
The five-piece band, led by James Lent, fired up and off we went into an excursion of Broadway, pop and classic Christmas songs. A modest stage of black and Christmas white lights was soon filled with eleven singers who led us into the season with pieces arranged mostly by Victoria Lavan who also was part of the ensemble. The current moderator of Theater West's musical theater unit, Lavan cleverly interspersed the performances with spot-on quotes and poetry from Longfellow to Leonard Cohen.
Evident immediately was the diversity of the voices: new young singers, elder statesmen, Diva wannabes and several show-stopping voices who are sure to continue their climb. There was a constant "mix and match" as the group of eleven arranged and rearranged themselves into duets, trios, quartets and more. We never got tired of the movement on the stage.
While some singers might have bitten off more than they could chew, Harleigh Ford was smooth and enjoyable with her soulful "Santa Tell Me," the Ariana Grande original. The humor of the evening belongs to Scottie Nevil with her clever rendition of
"Never Fall in Love with an Elf," from Elf the Musical.
Kanye West's "Coldest Winter," began with a modal trio reminiscent of a Gregorian chant but soon opened up to the West hit and allowed Alyssa Rupert and Rick Simone Friedland to show us what they had.
Of special note was Bryce Charles' version of "I'll Be Home for Christmas." She was delicate when she started out. She turned up the heat as the song moved into the bridge and she killed it at the conclusion, all with a humble demure and solid stage presence. Watch out for her.
In a world where auto-tune is used as a live singing tool on many stages, I have to offer kudos to all eleven singers. To attempt "the high note" (as Ralph Kramden called it) and just miss it by a microtone, shows me your moxy. You put it out there and tried. Several members did just that and get my applause for trying. I saw thirty shows at the Greek this year and more than a handful had autotune on the lead singer. To sing without it these days is a sign of bravery.
But someone who definitely did not need the Melodyne plug-in was Vertreace Sanders. Her rendition of the Al Green standard, "Let's Stay Together," had us jumping in our seats. The lady can
bring it. And in the finale of "Joy to The World," she left no doubt who had the pipes on that stage.
We have to mention the fantastic arrangements of two particular productions. Victoria Lavan and James Lent outdid themselves with wonderful morphs. A standard would start and then get taken over by a pop song. Think Bing Crosby and David Bowie. Case in point: "Don't Worry, Be Happy" is so infectious we didn't dare to question why it was in a holiday collection. That is, until it morphed into "Winter Wonderland." And it seemed so natural a change that it sounded like a hit we knew. The finale was a real winner with the most sold Christmas hymn in the last hundred years, "Joy To The World" (with words and music by Watts and Handel.)
Without even realizing it, the choir had moved into the Hoyt Axton and Three Dog Night hit song of the same name. Add to that Vertreace Sanders ecstatic and evangelical gospel scatting at the conclusion, and you have a satisfying end to timely little show.
Again, the band was special with Pete Snell on many guitars (electric soul, semi-hollowbody jazz and folky acoustic.) While James Lent's masterful and Sondheim-influenced piano guided everyone through the music, it was Snell's creativity that was just so special. He was worth the ticket alone. And on top of that, the band included harmonica. Yes, harmonica. Mara Wells' chromatic harmonica playing added a wonderful hue to the performance. I'd like to hear more of her.
The show harkened back to the golden age of TV's "Christmas Specials," minus the choreography, with its quick changes and ensemble singing. It was a headier choice of songs and with the inclusion of the poetry that we would never see on the Dean Martin or Carol Burnett, the audience had a chance to think about the meaning of the coming season.
By the finale, just like the PR promised, we had been exposed to so much more than just seasonal warmth. See
So Many Stars this Saturday (Dec. 9) and Sunday (Dec. 10) at 8:00 PM and 2:00 PM, respectively, at the historic Theater West in the Cahuenga Pass.