Mad River Union
It is difficult to write a critical review about what was so clearly a love fest at the opening night of Turning Gray Skies Blue: The Music of Timmy Gray.
The Dell’Arte company celebrated Gray’s work on over 50 productions by reprising songs from many of those plays, many with the original performers.
And with only two exceptions it worked. It was great theatre. The exceptions were wonderfully performed but the exceptions just did not stand the test of time.
To say that it was all perfect would be to insult the musical talent and sensibilities of a gifted and versatile composer. OK, that’s out of the way. Let’s talk about the perfection of the other 12 songs.
The evening opened with the always-stellar house band (Marla Joy, Mike LaBolle, Jeff Kelley, and Tim Randles) playing three Gray compositions. This has to be the hardest working band in show business as they would go on to carry the night. Their versatility and musicianship have been a joy in every Dell’Arte production. But in Turning Gray Skies Blue, they ARE the show.
James Peck, Pratik Motwani, and David Powell brought it to “Odd Fellows Song” from Blue Lake: The Opera. Their singing and dancing let us know that this night’s performance would be amazing. Despite a knee injury, Motwani capered with his usual humor and grace and Powell and Peck looked at home in their vaguely Egyptian attire. Their voices blended perfectly.
Jackie Dandeneau’s duet with Sayda Trujillo on “Correspondence Song” from The Land of the Grasshopper Song transcended any problems with malfunctioning microphones. It’s not easy to sing a series of letters but Gray’s sweet harmonies and the duo’s sweet voices carried it to another level.
Many of the introductions to songs were brief but Michael Fields’ brilliant monologue in the character of Buddy O’Hanlan from Wildcard was delightfully long. We just didn’t want him to get off the stage as he turned cowboy poetry into pure Shakespeare. And then he sang “Woman Who’ll Listen to Me” with both lyrics and music by Gray. Every woman in the audience was ovulating, even those of us who haven’t done that in years. Fields did the country crooner just right and the house band, especially Kelley, could have been playing at that little country bar in Alton in 1978. You know, the one where they threw beer bottles at the band if they didn’t like them. Damn, they are good.
“It Sucks To Be Jane,” another song from Wildcard, brought out the versatile Joan Schirle who reminded us that, whether she is Mary Jane or just plain Jane, here is a woman who can work a song. And how she works it –every single one of Gray’s clever lyrics sold as solid gold.
The tremendously funny and talented physical comedians Stephen Buescher, Emilia Sumelius and Laura Muñoz had the audience roaring with “Poor Bucky” from The Rag and Bone Show. Their use of props (I refuse to spoil it for future showgoers) was goofy and just weird enough. Those three can dance and sing!
It was wonderful to see Motwani motivate the audience during “To Nuggy” from Mary Jane The Musical. I’ve had the fun of seeing that production four times and obviously most of the audience was also familiar with the show. The entire amphitheatre was a sea of waving arms and filled with voices singing along. Motwani, Schirle, and Powell reprised their dance moves from the original and Muñoz flowed through the number as if she had been in the original cast. Some current emphasis added nuance to the song, always a Dell’Arte strength.
We needed the intermission just to catch our collective breath.
The lead-in to the second act, a delightful pastiche of semi-Shakespeare, worked, although the inclusion of a scene from the Scottish play made me a little nervous. The recitations worked as a device to corral the audience back into their seats although someone should have told the noisy bartender to pipe down.
“She Never Has Time For Me,” another Gray composition of both lyrics and music from Comedy of Errors, brought the effervescent Lynnie Horrigan out of the costume shop and onto the stage. She’s gifted in both roles and her flirtatious singing, dancing, and prancing meshed with Motwani’s charm. We lost a few of his lyrics (that pesky microphone again?) but no matter, his body language always sells the song.
The next number, “Love You All” illustrates what director Fields was talking about in a pre-show interview. Gray can write in ANY genre, He really can. The music and lyrics, both by Gray, took the audience to a different place. The black and white costumes and the song stylings of Stephen Buescher and David Powell were so hip and cool. This number, from Lost: The Clone of God, Fragment #1, just wowed.
“Scotts Valley,” another song from The Land of the Grasshopper Song, is a bittersweet lament for stolen land and dreams of home. Dandeneau’s voice was hauntingly backed up by Schirle and Barb Culbertson in a song that had many of the audience in tears over the fate of an old man cheated out of his beloved valley home. The staging was evocative and the blend of voices could have been sent down from a high mountain into that valley.
Powell acknowledged the effect of that song in his introduction to the next number, saying, “my heart has been broken.” His solution was to sing his heart out on “Aria” from Blue Lake: The Opera. If you need a reason to not miss this show, it is the chance to hear Powell in full voice. No need to drive to San Francisco for your opera fix. We’re blessed with Powell here in Blue Lake, doing what only he can do: knock our opera-loving socks off. (Full disclosure: I always cry when he sings the operatic duet from Mary Jane, “I don’t want to grow outside ...” His voice is just so incredible.)
Thank goodness for the slapstick of “Forever And A Day” from The Rag and Bone Show. Muñoz, Sumelius, and Buescher took the audience back to earth with laughter and skill. The lyrical line, “We’re going to live forever and a day,” was extra poignant since Gray was being honored, and had honored us with his presence. He plans to be at all the performances.
The Finale from Blue Lake: The Opera brought the entire cast to the stage with the added voices of The Blue Lake Love Choir, and a very special guest high in the eaves. It was just one of those moments that folks will say, in future years, “I was there at Dell’Arte when they honored Timmy.”
What a brilliant performance and what a night. Thank you cast and the hard working technical crew. I’ve focused on the performers but the direction, lighting, sound, costuming, and, especially the beautiful proscenium design, were all uniformly terrific. Dell’Arte would do nothing less for their man.
Don’t miss Turning Gray Skies Blue, playing again on June 28 and 29. I am crying as I write this. Just. Don’t. Miss. It.