Dallas — The Kalita Humphreys Theater was again filled in anticipation of this annual tradition of rousing performances through Uptown Players’ fundraiser, Broadway Our Way (BOW). Bracketing the evening were opening and closing remarks from Uptown Players’ founders Craig Lynch and Jeff Rane, and BOW director B.J. Cleveland. Each thanked the audience for its continual support of Uptown Players, underscoring the importance of this and other fundraising activities.
But a new phrase was present in the remarks: the words “especially this year.” The house understood what that meant, starting with the heightened uncertainty surrounding funding for arts organizations. Just as the house understood the weightiness of that phrase, the hosts understood their good fortune in having before them some of the most appreciative people in the area—theater audiences. It is a testament to Uptown Players that so many of the region’s best stage performers donate two weeks of their time each year toward this performance. BOW is a fundraiser and a heartfelt thank you bundled into one package.
For this year’s production, B.J. Cleveland has mixed it up, giving a nod to the old, the contemporary, and a few titles you might have missed. Among the more familiar shows are Sister Act, Pump Boys and Dinettes, The Wiz, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, On the Town, Hairspray, The Addams Family, Titanic, La Cage Aux Folles, West Side Story, Annie Get Your Gun, The Music Man, Forever Plaid, Jersey Boys, Spring Awakening, Young Frankenstein, The Sound of Music, Gigi, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, Scarlett Pimpernel and Ragtime.
Less familiar to general audiences: Soho Cinders, a 2012 London West End sensation, had its American premiere in 2014 with Uptown Players. Carmelina (1979) closed after a short 17-performance run but was acknowledged for its outstanding musical score. Homemade Fusion is amassing a large audience through YouTube with over a million views to date. Heathers enjoyed a four-month run Off Broadway in 2014. Big Fish, based in large part on the film, was on Broadway in 2013. Waitress, also following a successful film, is currently on Broadway and gaining in popularity.
Music director Kevin Gunter guided an ensemble of keyboards, violin, woodwinds, guitar, bass and drums through the musical arrangements of Adam C. Wright.
This year’s “diva women” are Feleceia Benton, Nikki Cloer, Kelly Holmes, Linda Leonard, Laura Lites, Janelle Lutz, Kelly McCain, Sara Shelby-Martin, Amy Stevenson, Brett Warner, Molly Welch, and Wendy Welch. The “diva men” are newbies Tyler Jeffrey Adams, Kyle Igneczi and Rashaun Sibley, along with Michael Albee, Coy Covington, Christopher Curtis, Peter DiCesare, Alex Heika, Walter Lee, Rhett Warner, Paul J. Williams and B.J. Cleveland.
Among the most memorable moments from Act I were Sara Shelby-Martin’s fierce “Fight the Dragons” (Big Fish), Feleceia Benton’s sultriness in “Slide Some Oil to Me” (The Wiz), Christopher Curtis’ Pleasantville-like delivery of “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm” (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), and Coy Covington, who is simply magnificent in “One More Walk Around the Garden” (Carmelina). B.J. Cleveland (as Liza Minelli) and Janelle Lutz (as Judy Garland) slayed with “Timeless to Me” (Hairspray). It’s a little scary how well these two performers become the mother/daughter legends onstage.
The 2017 season’s upcoming musicals—It Shoulda Been You, Titanic, and La Cage Aux Folles—were introduced through a medley sung by Wendy Welch, Linda Leonard, Christopher Curtis, Molly Welch, Amy Stevenson and the company.
Act II opens with “Dance at the Gym,” a clever arrangement of the music from West Side Story. Peter DiCesare and Alex Heika followed with a pretty duet of “Lost in His Arms” (Annie Get Your Gun) and “Goodnight My Someone” (The Music Man). Amy Stevenson was laugh-out-loud funny as a nun singing “My Eyes Adored You” (Jersey Boys) while gazing at fellow sister Sara Shelby-Martin. Not to be outdone in the comedic arena was Paul J. Williams with “Deep Love” from Young Frankenstein. His best aside of the night for me was “That hair is not teased, it’s ridiculed.”
If there was a prize for most memorable production number, it would go to the women’s performance of “Bitch of Living” from Spring Awakening. They were simply fabulous with both their singing and execution of Jeremy Dumont’s choreography.
Solo standouts in Act II were Walter Lee in “Random Black Girl” (Homemade Fusion), Peter DiCesare singing “The Life I Never Led” (Sister Act), and “She Was There” (Scarlett Pimpernel) by Laura Lites.
But the showstopper was without a doubt Coy Covington and B.J. Cleveland performing “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. The costumes alone spoke volumes before either of the men opened their mouths.
The closing company number was “Make Them Hear You” (Ragtime). Artists speak when others either cannot or will not. It is through the arts that our stories are told again and again, the repetition a necessary process for a species with a tendency toward forgetfulness. This season’s Broadway Our Way renews that commitment through theater to make the voices of the people heard. Especially this year.