Wednesday, March 31, 2010

ASC's Actors' Benefit Blowout Concert

One of the great things about the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars performances is the pre-show and interlude musical entertainment. The multi-talented actors get to show off their musical talents by performing contemporary musical pieces. You are liable to hear something obscure, something very popular, anything from an old country song to a recent hit.

Because the music is so popular with audiences, the ASC decided to stage a benefit concert to support the Center's educational programs. The actors did this for no pay and it was a pay what you will performance. We reserved our seats at regular price because we live so far away. We decided we couldn't pass up the opportunity so we made the 3 hour 15 minute drive up to Staunton to see this extravaganza. We also decided to see The Roman Actor one more time. I had done some more reading of the play and some commentary on it, so I was better able to understand some of the nuances of it. As my wife said, it was even better the second time. I also noticed that the legendary historian William C. "Jack" Davis was sitting in the Lord's Chairs where we used to always sit (I've found a new "home" now in the second row).

The concert kicked off with a blazing, spot-on rendition of The Devil Makes Three's "Help Yourself." This song is played before performances of Doctor Faustus. Ben Curns does a great job on the vocals, and Chris Johnston tears the house down with a smoking banjo solo that leaves Devil Makes Three's live banjo solo in the dust. Other song highlights included John Harrell singing Feste's song from Twelfth Night and using his little son's guitar. The Harrell children were quite involved in the action, dancing about for the crowd. Harrell is also a very talented banjo player. Who knew? The guy is THE MAN. Tyler Moss was a ball of energy and emotion in several songs, particularly Gogol Bordello's "When the Trickster Starts-a Pokin,'" The Squirrel Nut Zipper's "Hell," which had the entire crowd dancing along and acting a fool, "The Arms of a Woman" by Amos Lee, and a wonderful song that escapes me by a friend of Tyler's. Greg Phelps again had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand on Flight of the Conchords' "Business Time" from The Alchemist. Phelps is a very versatile musician (most of them were, I was amazed at how many instruments Ben, Chris, Greg, & John can play), and was also particularly strong on the saxophone. Phelps is also wonderful on Radiohead's "Karma Police" and Boyz II Men's "End of the Road." Miriam Donald is always a bundle of energy and was hamming it up with the crowd all night long and showcasing her sweet voice. As in Doctor Faustus, Christine Schmidle offered lead vocals in German on Nena's 99 Luftballoons. Other song highlights were Pat Benatar's "Love is a Battlefield" from The Roman Actor and The Beatles "Eleanor Rigby" from Henry VI, Part Two. My only disappointment was not hearing enough of Denice Burbach's fine voice. I think she has the best singing voice in the troupe, but for some reason she wasn't featured as much. Sarah Fallon also didn't sing much--she never does--which is strange because I think she has a great singing voice, but she always attracts your attention whenever she is on the stage.

I came out of this with a ton more respect for the talents of this troupe (which is saying a lot, because I think they are the best). Some are as talented musically as they are actors. Chris Johnston in particular stood out to me. Readers of my blog will note that I have long been high on Chris both as an actor and a musician. He is incredibly versatile and I think he played around 10 different instruments during the concert as well as handled lead vocals on a few. The guy can get downright out of his mind on anything with strings. I hope to see Chris in some meatier roles soon. I think he would make a fantastic Iago and Prince Hal. He and Daniel Kennedy are hilarious on G-Love and Special Sauce's "My Baby's Got Sauce." Daniel is great with the bass and on the horns.

Ben Curns is an all around great guy. He made sure to seek me out and shake my hand during the intermission and tell me he was glad I could make it. Where else can you get that kind of interaction? He is a great actor and musician. He always commands the stage whenever he is on it and is great on vocals. He was definitely the leader of this band, and from what I understand, was pretty instrumental in getting this whole show to go down and I want to personally say thanks to him for all his hard work.

I can't say enough about Tyler Moss as a performer. He is so into everything he does and is fantastic in the aforementioned songs. I'm not even going to attempt to laud John Harrell as much as he deserves. He is obviously the majority of ASC fans' favorite performer. He is a gem of an actor and a musician and the Blackfriars stage would sorely miss him if he weren't there. Quite simply, he is a master of the stage.

I will be sure to be at any future ASC Concert. This was one of the most entertaining nights of my life. Thanks so much guys!

Chris Johnston in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

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