Dallas — You get your money’s worth at a Turtle Creek Chorale concert, without question. Plenty of songs, a lot of high-spirited laughs, humor both high and low, and some genuine soul. The chorus finished its 38th concert season with all of these features in its presentation of Outlaws at the Moody Performance Hall this weekend, conducted by Sean Baugh and with featured guests, Denver-based GALA chorus Sine Nomine.
The theme of the show, country/western music, lent itself to a veritable frolic. The stage was decorated with barnyard props and livestock. Costume changes for the chorus included cowboy hats, gingham shirts, boots and jeans and, for the second act, their more traditional black vests highlighted with red bandannas. The chorale’s dance troupe, the Soundbytes, got to step dance and honkytonk. The show was punctuated with Hee-Haw-inspired comic vignettes performed by talented Dallas improv comedians Kelsey Cornillie and Carl Armstrong. And the solidly reliable onstage band included a fiddler, bass, guitar and drums in addition to Scott Ayers’ elegant piano.
Musically, the concert was a hodgepodge of styles. The first half was given over largely to old-style and classic country music, starting with a bold performance of John Denver’s classic “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” The chorus was then joined by Sine Nomine for a traditional Mark Hayes arrangement of “Home on the Range” which was full of good-hearted nostalgia and Americana. The sheer number of Turtle Creek men overwhelmed the treble voices of the guest choir, but Mark Hayes can stand up to anything.
Sine Nomine was then given the stage for its set of haunting and ethereal pieces, Shawn Kirchner’s Heavenly Songs. The voices of Sine were bright and sinuous with astonishing pitch and dynamic range, although there were times when the choir was out of sync. These small technical problems were overmatched by the intimate brilliance of the overall presentation.
After this high tone interlude, Turtle Creek snatched back the low road with a hilarious drag performance by soloist Doug Mitchell and a remarkably capacious dress. The high spirits continued into a freewheeling dance number, in which the Soundbytes brought up audience participants for some honky-tonk swinging to Hank Williams’ classic, “Hey Good Looking.” In this, as in a few other places, the frontstage shenanigans overbalanced the singing, which was atypically disjointed. The one issue with too much show is that the choir portion has to be rock solid. The singing should not be compromised as it was here.
The concert then moved into the first of two “heartbreak medleys”—solo selections which here, as in the second act, were showcases for the very strong and lively performances of members of the chorus. These segments featured more contemporary country music, but were a good mix of sentimental (“There Goes My Life”) to clownish (“Pfft You Were Gone”). With so many soloists on the evening, it is difficult to call them all out for the uniformly great performances, but I was especially taken in this set by the singing of Jeff Bailey and Forrest Johnson on the Willie Nelson classic “Always on My Mind.”
A lengthy sing-along portion of country favorites and then a couple of other ditties (an enchanting version of “Danny’s Song” and a quirky fun “Pickup Truck”) led to the final song of the act, a traditional but spirited version of the classic folk song “Cindy.”
The first act had been somewhat uneven, possibly because this was the second night of an arduous run. But in the second act, Turtle Creek Chorale found their stride. They displayed much better artistry, nimbleness and dynamic versatility. Starting with low-grade pyrotechnics of fog and a slide show for a solid version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” the act led into a Classic Country Ladies Medley. Soloists tackled Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gayle, Linda Ronstadt and, of course, Dolly Parton with a mix of costume and semi-drag. All of these were smart, funny and beautifully sung, whether the soloist tried for the original pitch or dropped into a lower register. There is something peculiarly satisfying about mixing up the genders of famous solos. Dolly’s solo turn also provided an expert segue into a soaring version of “Light of a Clear Blue Morning,” the first piece in the concert that really showed off the strength and polish of the entire chorus.
After several other pieces, including another heartbreak medley, the small chorus Camerata performed a tight and crisp a cappella version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” The audience was then treated to a challenging but very well constructed and performed true medley called the Brokeback Mountain Suite. The deep emotional quality of the chorus was augmented by a brave and lovingly choreographed balletic interlude by The Soundbytes. The strong passion carried over into the final piece, an anthemic performance, along with Sine Nomine, of Naomi Judd’s “Love Can Build a Bridge” with brilliant solos by Doug Fonville and Lonnie Parks.
Outlaws was exhausting in its passion, length and sheer exuberance. Moments of brilliant choral and solo singing were countered by occasional times when the chorus seemed to just bully their way through. But the show was uniformly effective in its level of entertainment. And when the sagebrush and the barnyard dust had cleared, the overall effect was inspiriting and uplifting—just as audiences have come to expect from the Turtle Creek Chorale.