Fresh from their triumphal concert tours of Paris and Prague, you might almost expect the Minnesingers back on Island to be busy calling their agents from moviestudio trailers. But no, they’re still the great, glowing, unprepossessing kids they’ve always been, and they put all their talent, all their joy into this past weekend’s performances on their home stage at the performing arts center at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.
The concert they took to their fans abroad and brought back to their faithful audience here is called The Music of America: Give Our Regards to Broadway! This package of American melodies, in and of itself, must have charmed European audiences. The selection was eclectic: Apart from a few old standards such as Lullaby of Broadway and Chim Chim Cher-ee (the chimney sweep’s number from Mary Poppins), the songs came from edgy musicals such as Wicked, Rocky Horror Picture Show and Chicago.
Janis Wightman conducted, and it was clear from her opening remarks that she was herself still bedazzled by the recent trip. The chorus began with a formal piece, Choose Something like a Star, composed by Randall Thompson. Standing on three tiers of risers, boys in black tie, girls in black gowns with white bodices, the chorus mastered the challenges of this dissonant piece of modern classicism. Another two arcane arrangements followed, Sleep, by Eric Whitacre and Charles Anthony Silvestri, and Ave Verum Corpus, by Josef Rheinberger and Douglas Walczak.
These first three numbers were all about the 30 Minnesingers, their assured voices, spotlights, keylights, and subtle floodlights all depicting radiant faces and gorgeous formal attire. John Gorman at the piano added bravura accompaniment.
In the event that a drop too much highbrow music had been purveyed, the girls turned slightly inward as if to say, “Hit it, boys!”
The boys faced forward, re-energizing themselves and the audience with a four-part men’s-voiced sea chantey, Southern Ships and Settlers. The rhythm and the melody had that old chantey flavor, but the fun resided in its relative unfamiliarity: John Leavitt composed the music to a poem by Stephen and Rosemary Vincent Benét about the settling of Virginia by English immigrants.
Next the boys filed to their right for the girls to go a little nuts with Java Jive, selling the Drake, Oakland and Shaw tune with the silky slink of 1940s sexpot singers. Next came Someone to Watch over Me, by the Gershwin brothers and Shaw, performed with that clarity that makes you listen to the words as if for the first time.
The final third of the choral program went pop with And So It Goes by Billy Joel and Bob Chilcott, with solos sung by Toby Riseborough and Maggie Riseborough. Next came Everything, and then finally a Porgy and Bess medley skillfully crooned by Rykerr Maynard, Anna Yukevich, Sidra Dumont, Bryan MacKenty and Ashley Gwynn.
After intermission came the always-exciting dance portion of the program, choreographed by Lianna Loughmann. Highlights included duos and trios strolling all over the stage and even the auditorium for Lullaby of Broadway. A play of lights followed the singers’ mazelike passage.
Amalie Tinus sang Don’t Rain on My Parade, backed up by a mime troop of boys with horn instruments: The combination of Ms. Tinus’s earnest song invaded by boys with trumpet, tuba and bassoon, all wailing with no sound, made for a clever contrast.
A great crowd-pleaser was Time Warp, the signature song from Rocky Horror Picture Show, a certain generation’s favorite parody of the B-horror movie. Sam Valley, sly and sinister, crooned the Tim Curry role in a ringleted white wig. Sam Oslyn, Dan Reid, Justine Tucker and Ashleen Cafarelli gave him plenty of lively, Transylvanian support.
The stunningly pretty future movie star Anna Yukevich (“She was ready at the age of eight,” Vineyard Playhouse director M.J. Munafo told me later) and the equally talented Haley Hewson had fun duking it out – musically, of course – as two college roommates in What Is This Feeling? (Hint: That feeling is loathing.)
Aquarius and Let the Sunshine In, from the musical Hair, revealed the full company in hippie gear. It had to involve a major effort backstage to pull on all those layers of fringe, beads and tie-dyed apparel (borrowed from grandparents’ storage closets?) Rykerr Maynard rocked the house with his dancing.
Elsie Fantasia showed off considerable lung power in Hopelessly Devoted to You, as did Sidra Dumont in everything she sang, including Green Finch and Linnet Bird. If this young lady, with a head of beautiful cornrows and a voice to fill Carnegie Hall, doesn’t pursue a singing career, it will be a shame.
A gang of girls let loose with Cell Block Tango, from Chicago – Amalie Tinus, Amanda Rose, Justine Tucker, Ashleen Cafarelli, Sidra Dumont and Jenna Lambert. In short prison gowns and with long blood-red scarves over the black leggings and shirts that served both boys and girls as a costuming blank canvas, these girls stomped their feet and took turns singing gleefully of how they “done in” their men and how “they had it comin’!” Boy, did they!
Additional singers, all of whom are ready for prime time, were seniors Emily Lowe, Mitch Lowe, Grant Meachum, Willy Nevin and Taylor Rasmussen. Juniors were Haley Hewson, Alyssa Laslovich and Rebecca Tenorio. Sophomores were Olivia Becchio, Clare Boland, Sammi Chaves, Olivia DeGeofroy, Taylor McNeely, Gage Rancich and Samantha Valley.
The finale reprised the Time Warp, giving all the company a chance to strut their dancing mojo with a dirty dancing freakout, the lights going to black on girls with legs kicked high and looped over their partners’ hips, á la Jennifer Gray and Patrick Swayze.
The other major players behind the transatlantic success of the Minnesingers were Jeff Caruthers, stage manager, costumers Kate Murray and Ashley Girard, and assistants Cheryl Lowe and Jude Tucker.
The Minnesingers on their foreign spree were, by all accounts, beautifully behaved and shining examples of American youth, yet it still couldn’t have been a stress-free job for chaperones Nancy Nevin, Cheryl Lowe and John Wightman. The technical team was composed of Charlie Esposito, Betsy Hauck, Ken Romero, Mike Paternaude, Carl Gosselin, with the consigliere role going to the brilliant sound-and-light tech James Novack. Members of the Minnesingers Parents Group have proven themselves the troopers this corps has always produced.
A standing ovation followed the last musical note, and an unspoken blessing went out from all of us to the 16 seniors ready to step off the high school risers on to the bigger stage of the whole wide world. Just as Winston Churchill famously said never, never, never, never give up, well then surely in this context he would have advised, never, never, never, never stop singing!