Camelot’s Classic Crooners Spotlight: Yes There really WAS Good Pop Music Before Rock And Roll
– by Lee Greene
In the lobby of the Camelot Theatre at the Monday evening, August 17 performance of Spotlight on Perry, Jerry & Dean: Classic Crooners, a couple of adults were trying to explain to the adolescent children they had brought to the show just who Perry Como, Jerry Vale and Dean Martin were. “They were BIG in their time, and made popular music what it is today.” The kids hadn’t a clue, which is sad. The great majority of the audience at the performance were older adults, who DO remember the three classic crooners from the pre-rock pop era of the 40’s and 50’s and who enjoyed a real treat, arousing memories from that bygone epoch when music was dominated by extraordinary vocalists singing well written songs, not by electric guitars and walls of amplified sound. It is unfortunate that, in this age of cut music education in the schools, more young people weren’t present to be exposed to the mellifluous and pleasing music that was so popular for an earlier generation of pop music fans.
And in Camelot Theatre’s Spotlight on Perry, Jerry & Dean: Classic Crooners, that wonderful music from an earlier era was performed as well as it possibly could be, short of resurrecting the original three performers back to life, to entertain the audience. Camelot procured the services of three exemplary singers to step into the shoes of the three crooners: Michael Wing singing and speaking for Perry Como, Erik Connolly voicing Jerry Vale and David King-Gabriel absolutely inhabiting Dean Martin. The show presents a fairly comprehensive description of the backgrounds of the three singers and the histories of their careers, provided in large part via commentary by a narrator, with asides by and repartees between the singers, in character. I don’t want to spoil the show for those who haven’t seen it yet (and I DO encourage everyone who enjoys popular music to go, and dammit, bring the kids!), so I am not going to go deeply into detail here about the background and career histories of the singers, which are well covered in the show.
I will say, and repeat, and emphasize, that the singing was superb, and the music extraordinary. Mr. Wing is a fine baritone singer, and I have heard him sing many times, in many contexts – musical shows, choirs, solos, ensembles, etc. He has a wonderful voice AND perfect pitch. But he really achieved a career pinnacle with this performance as Perry Como. I have a habit of taking copious notes during shows I am supposed to write reviews about (to the occasional consternation of other audience members seated around me) and my notebook used on the evening of the Classic Crooners performance is just filled with accolades and plaudits for Mr. Wing’s renderings of the various Como songs, from his first offerings: Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba and Catch a Falling Star (“gorgeous pure tones”, “well sung”), to his go on Return to Me, which each of the three took a turn at [and each of the three crooners had separately recorded] (“beautiful baritone – does Como justice”), to Ave Maria (“so beautiful it may bring you to tears, which is exactly how Como approached it”). All told, by my count, Mr. Wing sang 10 numbers from the Como catalogue, either alone or in collaboration with the other crooners, and there was not one clunker in the bunch.
If you think I was waxing poetic about Mr. Wing’s singing, well you ain’t heard nothin’ yet, because Mr. Connolly knocked my socks off, singing the Jerry Vale numbers. I’ve heard Mr. Connolly sing before too, most recently in the lead role in Camelot’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar earlier this summer. I had nothing but good things to say about Mr. Connolly’s singing in that earlier production, but it just didn’t give him the opportunity to really use his voice and show off what he could do, the way the Jerry Vale songs in this show did. Again, I wrote down too many plaudits to include them all here: from his first number on the program, Al Di La (“absolutely beautiful voice and singing”), to Vale’s hit, Amore Scusami (“great tenor voice, magnificent sustained ending”), to his turn on Return to Me (“stunning tenor voice, outshines both Como/Wing and Martin/King-Gabriel, who are both outstanding in their respective treatments of the song”), to another Vale hit, Have You Looked Into Your Heart (“again, exceptionally lovely tenor singing”) to his last solo, Pretend You Don’t See Her (“gorgeous tenor singing AGAIN”). By my count, Mr. Connolly sang 10 numbers from the Vale catalogue, either alone or in collaboration with the other crooners, and again there weren’t any missteps in the lot. Mr. Connolly’s singing was so superb, if there were nothing else on the program but Mr. Connolly singing just the Jerry Vale numbers (and it was simply billed as an evening of Mr. Connolly singing without even any mention of Vale or the Crooners), this show would be worth the price of admission.
Now we come to Mr. King-Gabriel. He too is a fine singer, and one who I’ve heard before – most recently as Judas in Camelot’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar earlier this summer. As with Mr. Connolly, I had nothing but good things to say about Mr. King-Gabriel’s singing in that earlier production. But it didn’t prepare me for his star turn in this show. Mr. King-Gabriel presented wonderful renditions of the Dean Martin songs, and my notebook has no shortage of accolades for his voicing on the songs. But King-Gabriel accomplished far more than that. He didn’t just sing Martin’s songs, he did a highly credible job of inhabiting Dean Martin’s outsized personality and nearly stole the show doing so. My notebook is filled with notations like “wonderful hand gestures”, “interacting with audience exactly like Dean Martin does” (on Martin’s famous hit, Amore), “has that Martin insouciance down” (Red Roses for A Blue Lady), “moving and shaking just like Dean Martin, and wears the part right too – tie open and hanging” (Mambo Italiano). Mr. King-Gabriel’s singing was great, but his non-sung repartee and dialogue were memorable too. He delivered some of Martin’s famous lines perfectly, for example, “I’d hate to be a teetotaler. Imagine getting up in the morning, and knowing that’s as good as you’re going to feel all day.” There were many, many more, but I don’t want to steal his thunder and give away the show, for readers who may yet go to see it. Speaking to Mr. King-Gabriel about how he produced this excellent portrayal of Dean Martin, encompassing the personality as well as the singer, he explained, “I did it for my mother, Polly, who loved Dean Martin.” That works for me.
Earlier on, I said, “the singing was superb, and the music extraordinary.” I wasn’t being redundant; there was more to this outstanding show than just the superlative singing. Camelot Theatre’s musicals have always been notable for having a good live band. But the band for this show was the best ever and I’m not exaggerating. My dog-eared critic’s notebook has just as many plaudits for the band as for the vocalists: “Great band” (Standing on a Corner), “wonderful string bass” (Memories are Made of This), “outstanding clarinet and trumpet turns” (Red Roses for a Blue Lady), “lovely trumpet solo” (Inamorata), “beautiful flute passage” (Poor Butterfly), “another fantastic trumpet solo” (Non Dimenticar), “notable trumpet and sax contributions” (Volare), “terrific trumpet again” (Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime), etc. It should be noted that if the vocals are the meat of these songs, which again aren’t accompanied by electric guitar and all the other bells and whistles used to produce the newer generation’s rock and roll, then keyboard and percussion are the potatoes, which are vital to rounding out the meal and making these songs work. Without good keyboard and percussion to support the vocals, these crooners’ songs wouldn’t have been hits. And at the heart and soul of the Camelot Theatre’s band were exceptional keyboard and percussion players who made sure the hits sounded like hits. So ovations all around for keyboard player Lauren James, percussionist Steve Sutfin, string bassist David Miller, trumpeter Randy Scherer, and woodwind player (that’s sax, clarinet AND flute!) Laurie Calhoun. Musical Director/arranger Dal Carver deserves kudos for his fine work too.
Of course, Camelot Theatre doesn’t miss a trick, when it comes to technical stagecraft. They may have run up a mortgage of $500,000 constructing a state of the art theater, but they did get their money’s worth and use it well. For this show, projected images and video are well woven into the production. Again, no need for spoilers telling readers exactly what, where and when. Just take it from me, they do it well, it enhances the show, and you will enjoy it. Lighting is also well done, with effective use of spotlights to shift focus between the singers.
One last aside: for the performance I attended and have written about here, which was a late addition to the schedule, Renee Hewitt stepped in as the substitute narrator for Shirley Patton, the regular narrator, who couldn’t be there. Now I don’t know how Ms. Patton does with the narration, but I hope she is at least half as good as the delightful Ms. Hewitt was. She presented the narration with energy, aplomb, just the right touch of humor, perfect timing, and exquisite enunciation and delivery. Good luck to Ms. Patton meeting that challenge.
The three singers accompanied by the band perform 25 songs from the catalogues of the three crooners, divided into two acts separated by an intermission. Performances of Spotlight on Perry, Jerry & Dean: Classic Crooners continue at Camelot Theatre, 101 Talent Avenue, Talent, from August 20-23, Thursday thru Saturday 8:00pm, Sunday Matinee 2:00 pm. For tickets: order online at http://boxoffice.printtixusa.com/camelottheatre/eventcalendar, or call the box office at 541-535-5250, or in person at 101 Talent Avenue, Talent, Oregon.
This review was originally published by the Jacksonville Review on August 19, 2015 at http://jacksonvillereview.com/camelots-classic-crooners-spotlight-yes-there-really-was-good-pop-music-before-rock-and-roll/