BWW Reviews: FIVE: AN ENCORE PERFORMANCE at The Belcourt Theatre

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Nashville theater-goers may have experienced the second coming on Monday night - what with the return of those FIVE divas with their Encore performance - and while it might not have been part of that much-discussed rapture we've heard so much about of late, they certainly responded rapturously to the entertainment provided by the quintet of versatile triple threats.

In fact, judging from the expressions on the faces of those aforementioned audience members, they certainly appeared to be transported, so who knows? Maybe it was "the rapture" we experienced at the Belcourt Theatre - just in a different manner than anticipated. (Hey, it could happen...I'm no biblical scholar and I seriously doubt you are, buddy...)

Capitalizing on the tremendous success of their first offering (staged at Street Theatre Company in March), simply known as FIVE, the multi-talented and versatile group of women gave their Encore audience more of the same, adding some new musical numbers and more sparkling repartee, while engaging everyone with their charm, their presence and their way with a song. Clearly, Erin Parker, Laura Matula, Megan Murphy Chambers, Melodie Madden Adams and Cori Laemmel collectively know how to entertain and to impress with their seemingly boundless talent, but more importantly, each woman is a definite life force in her own right, able to command the stage just as authoritatively as an individual as she is with her "sisters" in tow.

While Encore opened as the original FIVE show did - a tribute to five iconic divas who represent at least one facet of each woman, treating us to those divas' signature songs - it surpassed that initial offering by giving us a better read on each of the women, allowing them to show more of themselves in the frank and naked way that makes cabaret more appealing and accessible.

For example, Laemmel (whose iconic inspiration is Audrey Hepburn) is cast as the wide-eyed and trusting innocent who considers herself far more worldly than her offstage demeanor would suggest; Matula (the Judy Garland of the ensemble, minus the pill-popping) is the driven, controlling, single-minded diva whose brash exterior masks her kind heart and vulnerabilities; Madden-Adams (the kinder, gentler Barbra Streisand) is the consummate former scholarship competition (read "beauty pageant") contestant who loves the spotlight as much as she does world peace; and Chambers (channeling Liza Minnelli) is the "slutty hermaphrodite with man hands" who can deliver a zinger like nobody's business, while being totally forthcoming about herself and her unique take on life.

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That leaves Parker (finding inspiration in Marilyn Monroe sans JFK, Arthur Miller and Joe DiMaggio), whose brainchild is FIVE, and who is known as the "mama diva" of the bunch. Yet somehow Parker remains an enigma. It's ironic that her "character" in the five of FIVE is unclear: Parker is far too savvy to appear wide-eyed, too nice to be controlling, too genuine to fake it as a pageant girl and too much a woman to appear hermaphroditic - although the jury's still out on that slutty thing. But who is the real Erin Parker? She's an amazing presence onstage, showing off an awe-inspiring versatility (not only is she a superb actress and singer, but she also plays accordion and harmonica - and while I'm clearly no judge of what makes one a capable accordionist or harmonicist [can that be right?], she impresses the hell out of me for those two talents alone) that aspiring young starlets must covet. Being enigmatic is not a bad thing - and, in fact, it might be shrewd marketing on the part of MAS Nashville: keep the audience guessing and they'll keep coming back for more. But I want her "character" to be more defined in the future (hey, you've got until December to work on this assignment, ladies, when the next installment lands onstage).

While Chambers retains her title as the most self-assured cabaret artist in the ensemble (the woman is phenomenally talented and she possesses this ability to tug at your heartstrings while poking you in the ribs that is unparalleled on a Nashville stage - and I want to hear her full-out rendition of "Maybe This Time" sooner rather than later), in Encore, it was the stunning Madden-Adams who walked away with the top comedy honors, delivering her story with great good humor and a droll delivery that still makes me laugh. Who knew she was such a deft comedienne? Her pageant memories were hilarious, her delivery delicious - proving herself just as accomplished a cabaret star as she is a singer and actress.

Matula, who really is as soft-hearted and approachable as was suggested during the show, very capably takes on the mantle of the driven star - and make no mistake about it, she has such star quality that it boggles the mind - who deserves the crowd's adulation. For proof, you need nothing more than her performance of Wicked's "The Wizard and I." It makes your spine tingle.

When in the presence of Cori Laemmel - whether face-to-face or watching her onstage -- you cannot help but fall completely in love with her sweetly goofy manner, underscored by immense talents and her unmistakably poignant way with a funny/sad song. In fact, she might want to pursue trademarking such songs for the future.

The huge audience for FIVE: An Encore Performance proves the five women have a loyal, vociferous fan base, who were delighted by the wealth of talent on display, responding when appropriate and watching raptly throughout the show. Clearly, the move to the larger venue was in order, but I missed the more intimate feeling afforded by the first cabaret at Street Theatre Company. It's easily understood that the move to the Belcourt was necessary in order to accommodate all the folks clamoring to see the ladies, but perhaps a multi-night run at a smaller venue would prove more conducive to FIVE's aims. I realize Parker's current gig at Barter Theatre keeps her four-and-a-half hours away from Nashville and her performance schedule there precludes such a multi-performance stand - I'm merely suggesting that in a perfect world, the intimate confines of a smaller venue gives you a deeper sense of immediacy and camaraderie with the five women.

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In keeping with the whole Encore theme, I would estimate that 60% of the original show was retained for the second (although I have no real proof of that except for my own memory), ensuring that newbies in the stalls were treated to the biggest and best of that endeavor, while the remaining 40% was new material that gave returning audience members much to love and go on and on about (social media was fairly abuzz following Monday night's curtain with huzzahs and pledges of undying love to the divas). To that end, we got another helping of "The Poor Choice Tango" (a deliciously ribald tale of romantic derring-do set to the tune of Chicago's "Cell-Block Tango"), as well of some of the solo numbers. Evoking their "ghetto experiences" and to show us their "street cred," the ladies took on En Vogue - and showing us they know which pop songs resonate with audiences, treated us to a surprisingly moving version of Katy Perry's "Firework." But I have a quibble here: Why perform "Firework" so beautifully, and with such understated style, if you're going to follow it up with a discussion of how lame Katy Perry is? It's jarring and incongruous and makes people (who just seconds before were reveling in your performance of the song) feel kind of lame themselves.

- FIVE: An Encore Performance. Starring Cori Laemmel, Erin Parker, Laura Matula, Megan Murphy Chambers and Melodie Madden Adams, accompanied by Russell Davis on piano, Abbi Roth on bass and Anthony Matula on percussion and guitar. Presented by MAS Nashville at The Belcourt Theatre, Nashville. Monday, June 27. For further information about FIVE and MAS Nashville, visit the company website at www.masnashville.com.

Pictured (middle): Erin Parker

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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