In three shows filled with heart, talent, and irrepressible mischief, the Windy City Gay Men's Chorus and Aria performed this weekend at Chicago's Senn Campus, and gave their richest, funniest, most emotional holiday show yet. There was an eclectic mix of musical styles, several show-stopping solos, some alarmingly good showcases of individual talent, a "hot" brass-and-percussion ensemble, and a visit from a besotted special guest, whose martini-fueled, train-wreck of a number redefined raucous hilarity, and may have been the last word in drag (until, perhaps, March).
This year's program, titled "Sassy! Brassy! and Classy!", left audiences as fully satisfied as at a banquet, offering familiar dishes and exotic delicacies, spiced with effervescent staging, and topped off with sweet harmonies and strong vocal mixtures. Director Stephen Edwards fashioned a wonderful show which, in spite of the challenges and rigors of rehearsals, the choirs delivered nicely.
Another thing...I felt entirely safe in the comfortable surroundings of Senn Auditorium. Mark was there all weekend, and the stage was filled with all of my friends who worked so hard to entertain us, with so much wonderful music beautifully performed. I knew the same warmth I used to know looking at the lit-up tree in my boyhood living room, with all the other lights off, and the promise of good things...
The combined chorus kicked off with "Spirit of the Season" from "Polar Express", a lively number that raised the house energy level, and set a tone of expectation for both the traditional and the contemporary.
The men moved right into "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year", a perennial classic (that we break into occasionally when the pressures of the season become insane!) The men's first set concluded with a beautifully harmonized, hushed version of "White Christmas", a song filled with nostalgia and hope, and still one one of the finest Oscar-winning songs ever.
Aria took back the stage for a jazzy rendition of "The Holiday Season", at one point vocalizing without words in an amusing "ta-tee-ta" chorus. Kay Thompson, a well-known actress, arranger, and godmother to Liza Minnelli, wrote this tune in 1963.
"Silent Night" always casts a breathless hush on an audience. This version is one of the most exquisite I have yet heard. Stephanie Dykes started with a strong baritone solo in German, with the combined chorus fading in for a melancholy rendition of the song. Stephanie came back for a brief solo interlude, taking the song into a different key, before the chorus built in volume to a thrilling climax, at which it was impossible not to be moved.
The women lightened things up again with "The Holly and the Ivy" done in a calypso kind of beat, with great piano accompaniment and a fine solo by Valerie Silk Kremenak.
Then things got out of hand--in a great way.
Stephen breathlessly announced the appearance of a special guest! While the chorus donned hats and grabbed their fur-lined music books in order to provide background vocals for this special soloist, we learned that the singer was none other than Mrs. Santa.
In white silk elbow-length gloves, silver wig with a ridiculously small hat perched on top of his head, and a silky and flattering dress, Bill Howes, as Mrs. Santa, was wheeled out on a chaise lounge by two shirtless minions (Bill Marsland and Jason Spoor) sporting leather harnesses and hats, sucking on tootsie pops, and bringing continuous martinis to the hapless diva.
The chorus followed their music gamely, while Mrs. Santa launched into an off-key riff that got appreciative howls of laughter from in-the-know audience members. "O Holy Night" segued hysterically into everything from "Deck the Halls" to a wild-west version of "Sleigh Ride"; from a confused mix of "Frosty" and "Rudolph" to "Over the Rainbow"; from "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer"; to Mozart's "Magic Flute", returning finally to "O Holy Night", before she was wheeled offstage.
Howes tottered around the stage, goosing Director Edwards (who grabbed a drink himself), able to go from sublime to profane in one alcohol-riddled breath. A singer has to be really talented to fashion a number so hilariously off-key and well-timed, and Howes really put on a show. Even Michael Roberts, the Sign Language Interpreter, seemed to be at a loss, remaining quietly hilarious, frantic to get it all spelled out.
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The instrumentalists followed with an interlude of their own, "Sleigh Ride", which is more well-known. Both this and "Bugler's Holiday" (above) were written by American composer Leroy Anderson, described by Oscar-winning composer John Williams as "one of the great American masters of light orchestral music."
Aria's next, a Hanukkah Song called "We Are Lights" featured lovely solos from Anna Rose Li-Epstein and Katya Lysander, and incorporated a candle-lighting during the number.
And, to finish the first half of the show, the chorus was led by soloist Libby Lane, who effectively belted "Judah and his Maccabees", a musical bible story of the origin of Hanukkah. This number requires a strong, vibrant alto, and Lane gave an awesome and animated interpretation of the song. (Here's a version from the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, lead by Karen Hart, who wrote the song.)
Act Two was more emotional, more spiritual and even more amazing. The Men's Chorus offered a quiet and powerful version of "Ave Dulcissima Maria", performed acapella with only a single bell as a regular punctuation, like a Gregorian chant. This was rumored to be a troublesome, complex number for the singers, but from where I sat, it sounded perfect. The piece was written in 2004 by Morten Lauridsen originally for the Harvard Glee Club. (Listen to Polyphony's version here). Michael Vince, Ryan Johnson, and Anton Naess lent their beautiful voices in solos.
Aria came back for a suite of spiritual numbers, beginning with "December" in which the group's delicate voices perfectly captured the awesome solitude of a late winter afternoon, when the sky is all blue and pink from the setting sun. The chilling soprano solos of Kim Duncan, Rafael Ramos, Beth Bellinger and Meghan Bennett gave the song a haunting quality. "Hodie Christus Natus Est", "Gloria", and "Alleluia (from Songs of Faith)" recalled for me the brassy religious influence of the film scores of Miklos Rosza or the medieval beauty of "The Lion in Winter". Paul Basler, who wrote "Hodie..." and "Songs of Faith", was pleased with the arrangement, as seen on YouTube!
Finally, "Pictures of a Season", a suite so wonderfully done that it almost requires its own post. I'll try to do it justice in summary.
"Pictures of a Season" was a set of familiar holiday compositions, arranged in such a way as to provide a depth of meaning, an emotional journey.
Starting with a plaintive phrase from "Do You Hear What I Hear?", which served as a refrain for the whole number, the brass and harp were effectively woven in between. There was a rousing version of "Born in Bethlehem", done as a 4-part round with hand-claps that got the crowd moving. Bobby Owens came in for a brief solo refrain of "Do You Hear", followed by another exciting number, "I Am The Lord of the Dance", fronted by lighthearted solos from Ray Lesniewski and Dan Craig.
Before the climax of the choral piece, there was perhaps the most amazing solo work of all. Madelyn Tan-Cohen, the always-reliable piano accompanist, was given the spotlight, and transfixed the crowd as she moved effortlessly across the entire keyboard and back again for a thunderous, delicate, amazing musical interlude. Influences of Wyndham Hill and Debussy, hints of "Carol of the Bells", "Away in a Manger", a bluesy version of "We Three Kings", and segments of "Noel" "Gloria in Excelsis", combined for a seamless rhapsody. Madelyn, who quietly provides such great support for the vocals, here proved a tremendous talent in her own right. She received a well-deserved cheer from the crowd.
Finally, the chorus brought it all home, as the suite built in intensity to the full "Do You Hear", with full orchestral accompaniment and the entire choir giving it everything they had, to thunderous applause.
I hope this recounting of this very special concert will serve as a record of an event for some, a tribute to others, and an introduction to this special group to everyone else.
In the coming weeks, I'll return to the personal stories of many of the members, the preparation for the March Broadway fund-raiser, and the road to the Gala Festival in Denver in July! Stay tuned...