Saturday, July 17, 2010


"Songs of a Summer Night at Chester Theatre Group's Black River Playhouse

What do you get when you "marry" 25 glorious voices—each of them soloist quality—and terrific musical arrangements and accompaniment? Well, you get Songs of a Summer Night at the Chester Theatre Group's Black River Playhouse. But don't wait to get tickets; this blockbuster of a musical evening runs only through Sunday, July 25, and you'll be sorry if you miss it.

Under the musical direction of the gifted, Perry Award-winning Clifford Parrish, The Black River Singers treat the audience in the troupe's intimate black box theater to a variety of songs culled from the Great American Songbook and musical theater. George and Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin are well represented, as are Andrew Lloyd Weber, David Shire, Stephen Schwartz and Claude-Michel Schonberg, along with lesser known composers as Michael Valenti, Jason Robert Brown and Craig Carnelia.

I am not a music critic, but I can tell you that this production is professional, interesting and always riveting, whether it be the voices, the arrangements or the performances themselves. Almost everyone in the ensemble had a solo or two, with the entire group providing support from time to time, along with singing entire songs together.

Standouts include Karen Cantor in a lush version of George Gershwin's Summertime and as a hilarious Carlotta singing Prima Donna from Phantom of the Opera; Barbara Haag and Stuart Scheer's duet Bess, You Is My Woman Now from Porgy and Bess; D'Angelique and Jeff Dopson's romantic duet, Our Love Is Here to Stay; Julie Waldman-Stiel's rendition of The Man I Love and  I Don't Know How to Love Him (from Jesus Christ, Superstar). Cantor and Waldman-Stiel really know how to put a song across; they act the words as much as they sing them! And Alice Regan Moynahan's haunting rendition of My Man's Gone Now won't be soon forgotten.

Roxanna Wagner, Jodi Maloy, Mark Happel, Jeff Dopson and Scott M. Jacoby recounted the shoulda-woulda-coulda days of high school in Second Thoughts (from Is There Life After High School) and Barb Haag and Bob Jacobson's bittersweet duet What If We Had a Love Like That? (from Baby) was emotionally affecting. A trio of Wagner, Ellen Fraker Glasscock and Claudia Metz were adorable recounting the 10-year relationship of Three Friends—with all its ups and downs.

The song groups are nicely matched. The rousing opening number, which includes Clap Yo' Hands and I Got Rhythm, really gets your feet tapping. Some songs are performed together, providing a lovely counterpoint of melody. The coupling of Fascinating Rhythm and I Got Rhythm is especially interesting.

And concluding the "concert" with selections from Les Miserables is a nice touch. Many in the audience could be seen mouthing the familiar words to several songs. Scott Jacoby and Roseann Ruggiero are especially droll as the Innkeeper and his wife singing Master of the House; Julie Waldman-Stiel outsings Patti LuPone as Fantine in I Had a Dream; Stuart Scheer is an affecting Javert, singing Stars as he hunts for Valjean; Christina Ryan and Eric Harper as Marius and Cosette warble a beautiful Heart Full of Love, with Tina Kaye as Eponine providing a counter melody and lyrics. And as Jean Valjean, Jeff Dopson performs a terrific Bring Him Home. Every performance of these songs is Broadway quality!

Clff Parrish on piano, Tom Metz on bass and Dan Halpern on percussion provide splendid accompaniment to the ensemble.

All in all, Songs of a Summer Night is a show to lift your spirits, spirits that might be drooping under the summer heat and humidity outside. This refreshing show (performed in an air-conditioned theater, to boot) is not-to-be-missed!

Songs of a Summer Night will be performed Saturday, July 17, at 8 PM; Friday and Saturday, July 23 & 24 at 8 PM; and Sundays, July 18 & 25 at 2 PM. The Black River Playhouse is located on Grove Street in Chester. Tickets are $20. For information and tickets, call the box office at 908.879.7304.

Make an occasion of it: Chester has lots of nice restaurants and is a quaint town to visit before or after the show.