“Time be my friend, help me start again…”
Those lyrics from the song Home in The Wiz, like many from the Lyric Opera’s new cabaret concert performance, have taken on new meaning during the pandemic. One of thirteen pieces chosen due to its special significance to the performers, it came at the midpoint of an hour-long stream that premiered September 13, 2020 as part of the Lyric’s fundraising drive, featuring producer Renée Fleming and several rising operatic talents and guest stars from the world of musicals. The stream is now available to everyone for free, but donations to the Lyric are being matched dollar-for-dollar.
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Most of the selections are focused on exile, fond remembrance, and hope for reunification. But that is not the only timely theme, and the show opens with Solomon Howard’s rendition of Lift Every Voice and Sing. For this reviewer, his bass resonance would be nothing short of sublime even without the bittersweet backdrop of the Lyric’s warmly lit but empty house. Musical director Doug Peck accompanies Howard, as well as the subset of soloists who filmed in Chicago on the piano. We see what appears to be a private chamber performance. Yet we are in the cavernous Lyric space, which provides a subtle current to buoy each voice’s unique character. Howard returns later in the show to perform Man of La Mancha’s The Impossible Dream, transformed into both a civil rights anthem and an artist’s determination to soldier on even in the current theatrical landscape of pandemic times.For fellow fans of musical theatre, one of the big draws of this performance is the presence of Heather Headley. The originator of the role of Nala on Broadway in The Lion King, her reprise of the anthem Shadowland is haunting and defiant. If the show had streamed a week earlier, the song’s description of her country as a blasted, smoke-enshrouded landscape might not have seemed so literal, but with wildfires raging on our West Coast at the time of the first broadcast of this show, it resonated even more. She also leaves us with the notes of Finian’s Rainbow, as well as The Wiz, reduced to their hopeful essence by only a single instrument, the piano, accompanying them instead of a whole orchestra.
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The Lyric’s website features several supplements to the performance, including a guide for kids and an audio commentary about the creation of the show. It states that Fleming had already been interested in a cabaret-style performance before the pandemic, as well as more local outreach and a greater blending of opera and American musical styles. In this vein, soprano Ailyn Pérez channels music hall glitz during her selections from Puccini and Manuel Ponce, and mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges’s remote leading of the Chicago Children’s Choir adds welcome levity. Fleming herself, performing from northern Virginia accompanied by pianist Robert Ainsley, is featured heavily in the concert, performing one of her signature Strauss selections as well as The Last Rose of Summer, a song that finds beauty even in grief and loneliness. This review won’t spoil the humor of Fleming’s Mozart duet with fellow soprano Julia Bullock, except to hint that it does make clever use of the Zoom format, suggesting a possible new direction for a future production.
Chicago audiences desperate for more Lyric content will doubtlessly be pleased, if not satiated, with this taste, but the concert has clearly been designed to entice newcomers as well.
Running time is one hour.
CAST AND CREATIVE TEAM:
Soloists: Renée Fleming, Heather Headley, Ailyn Pérez, Soloman Howard, Julia Bullock, J'Nai Bridges
Pianists: Doug Peck, Robert Ainsley
To watch this free stream visit the Lyric Opera website.
Photos by Todd Rosenberg Photography courtesy of Lyric Opera.
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About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis has lived in Chicago since 2014 when he started writing articles about theatre, opera, and dance for a number of review websites. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of modernist dramatic literature and criticism. While there, he interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham developing concepts for new dance pieces. His professional work includes developing the original jazz performance piece The Blues Ain’t a Color with Denise LaGrassa, which played at Theater Wit. He has also written promotional materials for theatre companies including Silk Road Rising.
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