By James V. Ruocco
"The Secret Garden."
"Everybody's Talking About Jamie."
"Titanic: The Musical."
"Into the Woods."
Those were just a few of the Broadway and West End musicals uncorked with freshness and confidence in Fairfield Center Stage's "Onward and Upward," a musical theater concert, directed by whiz-bang Artistic Director Christy McIntosh-Newsom, a no-nonsense auteur and performer with a trunk full of directorial credits and rave reviews, ranging from "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and "In the Heights" to "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."
"Onward and Upward" had it all, from memorable show tunes and surprises, to that kind of happy magic that happens only in the land of make believe. It was a night to remember and one that theatergoers (lucky enough to be there and show their support) will be talking about for quite some time.
Is there a sequel?
Let's hope so.
Having Christy McIntosh-Newsom in charge of bringing "Onward and Upward" to life, was a very smart move. She knows musical theater. She loves musical theater. She loves actors. She loves show music. She also understands the mechanics of concert staging, the importance of song-after-song positioning, who to put when and where and how to tie everything together seamlessly for a two hour-plus concert presentation.
"It's a scary thing to start a new theatre company, especially when you don't have a permanent venue. But a theatre company is not a place. It's its people and we are grateful beyond measure for our theatre family.
(Christy McIntosh-Newsom, Artistic Director, Fairfield Center Stage)
As director, she dressed the "Onward and Upward" stage with highly regarded musical theater performers who not only delivered knockdown performances but elevated this one-night-only concert into a slam-dunk triumph for Fairfield Center Stage, its talented ensemble and everyone else in the audience.
Simplistic in execution, "Onward and Upward" inhabited that rarefied world of song and dance where things were exhibited with depth and personality, style and ambition and a forever-potent directorial beat that McIntosh-Newsom delivered most advantageously. If ever there is a follow-up, and, well there should be, there won't be a single ticket left to sell in the house. And that's a given, mark my word.
Bravo, Fairfield Center Stage!
"The spirit of our benefit concerts is threefold. The evening is a unique opportunity to be able to highlight a large amount of local talent in a single evening. There are very few shows that include a cast of 70, so these events are a wonderful opportunity to feature as many artists as we can. Since theater artists are at the center of our organization (without them we'd have no reason to exist, and no way to connect with our community), it is a celebration of their expressive talents through this connection that only live performance can provide."
(Eli Newsom, Executive Producer, Fairfield Center Stage)
There's nothing like a "live band" and "playing live" makes all the difference in the world in terms of power, passion, swing and ingenuity. With Clay Zambo doubling as conductor and musical director on keyboard, the varied musical styles of "Onward and Upward" were clear, urgent, melodic, provocative and charmingly personal.
No stranger to musical theater, Zambo and his orchestral team ( the equally talented Josh Sette, Gabe Nappi, Charles Casimiro, Brendan Stavris, McNeil Johnston and Mark Dennis) sounded better than ever, playing both popular and some very new show tunes with fresh improvising, distilled power, musical theater snap and dazzle and flavored bounce and invention. It was everything you wanted to hear in a concert of this caliber, offset by great thematic moments, powerful soloing/ duets and very compelling, voltage-charged ensemble turns.
Across the pond, "Onward and Upward" performer Sean Davis assumed the Jamie role with sharp and sassy abandon, much to the delight of everyone on stage and in the audience for the pulse-racing "And You Don't Even Know It."
Vocally, Davis was in top form as he nailed the character's musical dazzle and pronouncement for following your dreams and being yourself. Elsewhere, Emily Frangipane's choreography, which, in part, took its cue from the London production, was snappy, peppy and punchy, backed by a group of pop-honed singers and dancers, programmed for this exhilarating classroom romp of Sheffield's real-life, high-heeled superstar Jamie Campbell.
"You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" ("South Pacific")/"Children Will Listen" ("Into the Woods") Individually or side by side, both Carly Callahan and Betsy Simpson-Wilkes captured the angst, the passion and the human emotion behind their Sondheim/Rodgers and Hammerstein solos with poise, interpretive depth and lustrous control. Both singers also delved deeper into the meaning of their songs and found unexpected nuance, color and emotion. The final result was spectacular, torchy and sublime, accompanied by a feel-good glow that left you wanting more.
"Lily's Eyes" ("The Secret Garden") The much-loved "Lily's Eyes" duet from "The Secret Garden" was given impassioned bravado by the superb-voiced duo of Eli Newsom and Christopher Wilkes, both of whom ideally mastered this emotionally satisfying song of lost love and remembrance. Their beautiful melodic tones and uplifting musical perfection gave "Lily's Eyes" such a proud sense of conviction, it quickly became a standout on all levels and rightly so.
"Defying Gravity" (Wicked") Stepping out over the rainbow to deliver "Defying Gravity," the showstopping finale of Broadway's "Wicked," Arielle Boutin (Ilse in "Spring Awakening") easily reinforced her perfectly honed vocal talents using a powerful belt and rock star range to capture the essence and spirit of this now-classic show tune. She not only owned the song with her fresh, fierce perspective, but the end result was pure magic.
"And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" ("Dreamgirls") If you've seen "Dreamgirls," then you already know that Effie White's big solo "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," was designed to bring down the house and get people up off their feet standing, cheering and applauding madly. An ovation-worthy performance by Alana Cauthen singing the same song made famous by both Jennifer Holiday and Jennifer Hudson produced that same kind of frenzy in "Onward and Upward." Taking hold of this showstopping solo, Cauthen delivered a powerful, soulful rendition using the right right vocal chops and confidence to not only rock the heavens but reflect Effie's pain, anger and vulnerability. But wait, there's more. In 2019, Cauthen will be playing Effie White in Fairfield Center's Stage's upcoming production of "Dreamgirls." Yes!
"America" ("West Side Story") Wonderfully choreographed by Lindsay Johnson, Anita's fiery "America" anthem from "West Side Story" was vividly brought to life with fiercely energetic staging and movement. It was also sung with appropriate Latino spirit and fury by Olivia Grace, Jaden Bonfietti, Renee Sutherland, Bonnie Gregson, Laura Piacenza and Ms. Johnson.
"The History of Wrong Guys" ("Kinky Boots") The very charismatic Chelsea Dacey brought real vocal power to this multi-colored Cyndi Lauper showstopper about "bad choices," performed with just the right amount of dash, style and personality. It was the perfect vocal for Dacey's incredible voice. It had drive. It had energy. It had dazzle. It had zing. It also proved that Dacey not only knew how to sell one of the most popular songs from "Kinky Boots" with tremendous musicality, but offer her own personal spin on this high-energized number made famous on Broadway by Annaleigh Ashford.
"Everything Changes" ("Waitress") Maggie Meath delivered this sweet rendition of "Everything Changes" from the "Waitress" menu with a tasty slice of fell-good comfort, whimsy and melodious pop.
"You Will Be Found" ("Dear Evan Hansen") Described by the creative team of "Dear Evan Hansen" as "an anthem of self-affirmation," "You Will Be Found" was chock full of inspiration and reflection. Performed by the "Onward and Upward" ensemble, it was moving, passionate and feverishly compelling.
"Put On Your Sunday Clothes" ("Hello, Dolly!") Jacqueline Owens, Eric Regan and Bobby Henry united as one to bring this classic Jerry Herman show tune to life, backed by members of the "Onward and Upward" ensemble. It was pure fun for all involved, voiced with plenty of spunk and Yonkers spirit by this full-voiced and talented trio.
"Dear Theodosia" ("Hamilton") Sung by the characters of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton in the Broadway/West End edition of "Hamilton," this poignant ballad put Marcelo Calderon and Garth West in the spotlight as two fathers willing to make the world a better place for their children. A genuine heart breaker, it was voiced with principle and real human emotion.
"Where Do We Go From Here?" ("Vows") If this song is any indication of what lies ahead in Fairfield Center Stage's world premiere presentation of Clay Zambo's original musical "Vows," be prepared to be thoroughly entertained. Splendidly performed by Lisa Dahlstrom and Christopher Wilkes, this song about couples and how they met, got the point across most engagingly.
"There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" ("Sweet Charity") Performed with appropriate gusto by Emily Frangipane, Lindsay Johnson and Jessia Rahrig, this celebratory musical number about 60's taxi dancers speculating on alternative careers, captured the spunk, drive and dazzle of the the show's famous dance trio, matched by Frangipane's fluid, energetic, voltage-charged, character defining choreography. It was fun for all, both onstage and off.
"Muddy Water/River in the Rain" ("Big River") The talents of Robert Peterpaul and Everton Ricketts blended harmoniously in this dual song fest from Broadway's "Big River." Both numbers were superbly delivered by this endearing musical duo who charmed the audience with their smooth melodic musicality, their winsome exuberance and their innate knack for country/gospel tinged ballads.
"This Is Me" ("The Greatest Showman") Alexis Willoughby and company closed the show with this rousing and catchy show tune, giving it the right pulse and energy to bring everyone in the house to their feet in perfect, ovation worthy unison.
"Princess Power Medley" Classic, iconic songs from Disney's "Cinderella," "Aladdin," "The Little Mermaid," "Sleeping Beauty," "Frozen," "Beauty and the Beast" "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Pocahontas," among others, were the heart, soul and pulse of this memorable, showstopping "Princess Power Medley," lovingly performed by the tremendously talented Christy McIntosh-Newsom, Laura Piacenza and Leondra Smith-West. It was "spot on" enchantment of the purest kind with just the right touch of humanity, magic and Disney fairy dust. A real audience pleaser.
"You're Just in Love" ("Call Me Madam") Megan Grace and Lauren Linn took the spotlight for this popular Ethel Merman show tune and sang it with playful and acerbic aplomb.
"Don't Stop Believin' " ("Rock of Ages") This song, taken from Journey's seventh album "Escape" unfolded with anthem-like precision in the more than capable hands of select "Onward and Upward' ensemble members. It was the perfect rock song to get the pulses racing and it did just that.
"The Proposal/The Night Was Alive" ("Titanic: The Musical") Everyone knows the story of "Titanic," the sinking and the imminent warnings of an iceberg that were continually dismissed or ignored. In "Onward and Upward," Nicholas Kuell and Joe Cardozo achieved White Star first-class passenger status with their stirring vocal interpretations of "The Proposal" and "The Night Was Alive," written by composer/lyricist Maury Yeston.
An engaging showman with a voice of extraordinary range and resonance, Kuell, in the role of stoker Frederick Barrett, beckoned his audience to join him for a vocal proposal via telegraph to his loving girlfriend. Cardozo, an equally powerful vocalist, in turn, assumed the part of the overwhelmed telegraph operator Harold Bride.
Handling their individual spotlight solos, Kuell and Cardozo brought tremendous insight, style and charm to their very different musical moments. Gorgeously sung and performed, the overall effect, was truly epic.
"Set Those Sails/I'd Rather Be Sailing" (William Finn) Brian Crook and Carolyn Reeves displayed perfect vocal harmony and ideal rhythmic syncopation in this beautifully sung William Finn song combo. It was simply "Finntastic," no pun intended.
"Movin' Right Along" ("The Muppet Movie") Originally sung by Kermit and Frog and Fozzie Bear, this upbeat and comical song was given new life in typical "Muppet" fashion by Matthew Casey and Kellen Schult. Lots of fun, fond memories were conjured up for this one.
Food wise, the concert buffet (courtesy of the friends and family of benefit co-chair Stephanie Seanor), was sumptuous and absolutely delicious with flavorful wraps, jumbo shrimp cocktail, domestic and imported cheeses, dried fruits and nuts, grilled skewers and kabobs and assorted hor d'oeuvres. Even better, there was more than enough to go around and around and around. And the bar staff, was superb, at every turn.
Gratifying, entertaining and intelligently conceived, "Onward and Upward" was a dazzling night of musical theater that proved once again that Fairfield Center Stage was a force to be reckoned with...and then some. You'd be mad to miss their upcoming productions of "A Christmas Carol Experience," "Dreamgirls" and "The Secret Garden." Do not let something this wonderful slip away.
"Onward and Upward" was staged at Fairfield Center Stage (Penfield Pavilion, 323 Fairfield Beach Rd, Fairfield, CT) on November 17, 2018.