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August 6, 2010

Broadway in Bryant Park recap: ‘Fela!’ and ‘Avenue Q’

by Jesse North

After a hiatus from Broadway in Bryant Park last week due to some traveling, it seems the lunch-time concert series missed me, because it put on perhaps its strongest show of the season so far. What seemed like a strange lineup of mostly off-Broadway shows (Million Dollar Quartet and Fela! being the only Broadway offerings) delivered strong performances from each cast that included stars and no less than 10 minutes of stage time—something we haven’t seen in recent weeks.

The concert started off with a bang, with the Broadway newbie Million Dollar Quartet. Coming off of a Tony nomination for Best Musical and a win for supporting actor Levi Kreis, the honored actor and his cast mates took the stage with their instruments. Most casts sing to recorded instrumentals, as an orchestra usually can’t fit on the Bryant Park stage. However, since in Quartet, the actors are the orchestra, this made for a unique performance. The cast of Quartet are fantastic musicians and performers—every performance I’ve seen of theirs has been engaging, and this concert was no exception. It was refreshing to see the actors out of their Lewis/Presley/Perkins/Cash garb, instead donning jeans and Quartet t-shirts; it brought some of the cheese out of the performance, leaving their talent and chemistry alone on the stage. Lance Guest and Eddie Clendening, who play Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley respectively, were not in attendance, but their understudies were, and any difference in performance was nearly unnoticeable. A standout was Elizabeth Stanley, who plays Elvis’ girlfriend Dyanne, and usually fades into the background. On the Bryant Park stage, Stanley was feisty and bubbled over with sex and raw vocals. Her rendition of “I Hear You Knocking,” made an impression on me that hadn’t before upon seeing a musical preview and the show itself.

The second act was a strange addition to the lineup. Freestyle Love Supreme, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop improv troupe, doesn’t have an off or off-off Broadway showing. It did have a concert at the Gramercy Theater later that night, and that got it on the performance roster. Besides being founded by the Tony-winning composer of In The Heights, the troupe also (randomly) included Memphis’ James Monroe Inglehart (who gave a predictable plug for the show). Strangeness and weak relations to Broadway aside, the quintet exploded with charisma and displayed such an impressive command over vocabulary and rhymes that they elicited the loudest applause from the crowd of the day.  Few shows are able to interact with the audience, as this act did when they called for song ideas from the audience. For example, one audience-inspired jam centered around George Clooney, Mamma Mia!, and Australia. Their set overstayed its four-song set by five minutes, I thought; but the crowd sounded like it had a different opinion.

The 50-year-old off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks had the unfortunate task of taking the stage after the uber-modern Freestyle Love Supreme. While their act did seem dull compared to Miranda’s hip-hop humor explosion, Edward Watts, Juliette Trafton, and Matt Leisy displayed strong vocals, particularly Leisy on “I Can See It.”

While most shows have to keep their sets minimalist (no scenery or props), Avenue Q is kind of hard to perform without the naughty cloth characters. So Princeton, Kate Monster, Rod, and Nicky all made much-welcome appearances! The extremely talented Seth Rettenberg received the embarrassing and perfectly delivered “If You Were Gay” from Cullen R. Titmus’s Nicky. As Christmas Eve, Hazel Ann Raymundo crushed “The More You Ruv Someone” with massive vocals. Sarah Stiles, fresh off Michael Mayer’s concert reading of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, joined the cast for the always-hilarious “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” which closed the puppets’ set.

Video: “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist”

Last to take the stage was the cast of Fela!, which I was pleased to see include Sahr Ngaujah and Lillias White. While it might seem obvious that Ngaujah would perform at the concert, as Fela is involved in every number, based on some lead actors’ track records from previous weeks, I couldn’t be sure than an understudy wouldn’t be sent in. Their two-song set (which felt substantial, due to the length of the songs) started off with “Trouble Sleep.” If Bryant Park had a roof, White would have blown it off. Despite ending on a shaky note, White gave the afternoon concert everything she had, which was a delight to witness. Ngaujah was charismatic as ever on “Teacher,” but the large handful of ensemble actors present should have done more than just stand in the corner, providing backup. That stage was just begging to be shaken by Bill T. Jones’ choreography. Overall, Fela! ended the concert on a high note, and I heard many people around me murmuring interest in seeing the show. Mission accomplished.

Video: “Trouble Sleep”

Set lists:

Million Dollar Quartet
“Blue Suede Shoes”
“I Hear You Knocking”
“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”

Freestyle Love Supreme
Four improv’d jams

The Fantasticks
“Try To Remember”
“I Can See It”
“Soon It’s Gonna Rain”

Avenue Q
“If You Were Gay”
“The More You Ruv Someone”
“Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist”

“Trouble Sleep”

Next week, this wonderful summer tradition comes to a close for the season. However, it’s going out with a great lineup, which includes American Idiot, La Cage aux Folles, and West Side Story. What did you think of this week’s concert, Rushers? Does Million Dollar Quartet’s cast’s power over their instruments impress you as much as it does me? Was your head nodding to Freestyle Love Supreme? Were you surprised to see Memphis’s James Monroe Inglehart in there? Were you surprised Lillias White made it to the Fela! set? Leave your sunburned thoughts in the comments!

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