BWW Review: DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR? Enchants and Moves Audience at The Laurie Beechman Theatre
With so many Christmas shows from which to choose, one must do the homework, read the press, look at the postcards, and decide what one really wants to see. They're all good shows, but they are as diverse as the performers in them and the people creating them. DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR? A Holiday Benefit For Benjamin House was an easy sell for this writer. Helmed by Eric Michael Gillett and featuring a cast including Robin Westle and, as the card reads, special guest stars Sidney Myer, Jay Rogers and Marta Sanders, they had me at hello. Further investigation of the event, though, lead to information about BENJAMIN HOUSE, an organization in North Carolina for which Mr. Gillett works tirelessly in an ongoing effort to raise funding. Benjamin House was built to help the mentally challenged with life by providing them with a home and with care. It is a worthy cause for which Gillett has been working for many years and the DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR? benefit has been a big part of that work for the last 8 years. The benefit show plays Elizabeth City, North Carolina every Christmas and, sometimes, their final rehearsal takes place in New York in the form of a performance of the show, with monies raised going to Benjamin House. Sunday night was that performance.
And it was simply splendid.
Starting out your holiday show with religious music can be tricky. Although the origins of Christmas are religious, many find religion to be a turn off, and focus on the more secular aspects of the holiday. It's ok if a person isn't religious, even if a person is an atheist or agnostic -- that the evening begins with a medley of Christmas carols, including the song from which this show gets its' title, matters not because nothing else is important when the music is good; and it is clear, from the onset, that the music here is good. EMG starts his benefit with three of the most delightful men, possessing of remarkably beautiful voices and an even more remarkable ability to blend those beautiful voices into a glorious sound, appropriate given that the first tune in their medley is "Angels We Have Heard on High" - a song famous for the use of the word Gloria. The arrangement of the mashup and the voices of these men, joined eventually by Gillett, lets the audience know that this is going to be, indeed, a night of music worth hearing.
Eric Michael Gillett has put together a show that is not only impressive, it's entertaining. As a host/emcee, he is absolutely enchanting. His experience is showing every moment he is on the stage -- well, it's showing when he is off the stage, too. As Gillett sits near the front of the stage watching the performers until his next turn with the mic, his face is a picture of pride. It turns out that The Three Delights are students of Gillett, a renowned voice teacher. Ben Moss, Arthur L. Ross, and Billy Shaw each have very clear vocal foci and their specific gifts bring a variety to the proceedings during their solos, and a solidarity to the music, through their harmonies. Together or apart, the men stand out as talents with which to reckon, and names to be memorized, because these are singers to watch, and Mr. Gillett has every reason to beam so proudly from his ringside seat at this Christmas concert. The Three Delights transition smoothly from moment to moment, like a musical Greek chorus sent to help Gillett tell the holiday story of his heart, and to assist their fellow artists in their storytelling. When the lovely Melanie Vaughan takes the stage, the gents provide precise and playful background vocals for her "Blue Christmas" and when their exceptional musical director Daniel Lincoln adeptly steps in for an ailing Robin Westle on "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" the fellows chime in with charming chants of high-spirited harmonies. Each time The Three Delights appear on stage, whatever their assignment, they bring their A-Game and, with respect to all the wonderful artists giving of their time and talent for Benjamin House, EMG and The Three Delights could successfully take this act on the road.
As long as we are ON the topic of the other artists, though, let it not go unsaid that they are intricate and expressive musical storytellers whose contributions to the evening's entertainment are invaluable and enjoyable, from Cookie Stark's informed Broadway number to her soulful Christmas song; and all of Ms. Vaughan's performances, whether a solo number, a duet with Gillett, or a doo-wop with The Three Delights, are melodic bits of musical acting, brimming with emotions wistful and whimsical, warming the hearts of the people in the dark. Both women bring to the stage a spark that draws attention to them, and character that keeps a smile on the faces of the audience, even after they have left the stage. At the start of the program, EMG promises there will be more than just religious music, and more than holiday music, and the promise is kept, in lively fashion, by Ms. Stark's sassy performance of a beloved Stephen Sondheim song. The crowd is twice blessed by Sondheim during the show, as special guest Marta Sanders thrills with her songs, all of which originated on Broadway but which fit the pageantry of DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR? Beautifully. A compelling singing actor who makes one question the existence of microphones, Sanders (like her co-stars) is a powerful presence in a night of musical offerings versatile enough to satisfy the tastes of every patron of the event.
At the New York City performance special highlights included the inimitable Sidney Myer bringing that Myer magic to "Santa Bubby" -- a Jewish spin on a Christmas classic that should be recorded so that all might enjoy the perfection that is the song and the singer, and Jay Rogers, an original if there ever were one, reading a cutting from the great Truman Capote story "A Christmas Memory" and reducing the entire Laurie Beechman Theatre to tears in that Jay Rogers way that makes everyone love him. Misters Myer and Rogers will not travel to North Carolina for the show, though the Truman Capote recitation will be performed by Mr. Gillett, a man who, thrice, jokes about his age but who sings with a voice so sweet and so powerful as to give the impression that one is listening to a person either 20 years old, or a voicebox that refuses to age. DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR may be a Christmas concert and a benefit for Benjamin House, but it is also a tribute to Eric Michael Gillett's kind heart and his skill as a singer, to say nothing of his example as a teacher. While the absence of Misters Rogers and Myer in North Carolina will be felt, Broadwayworld has, today, learned that Robin Westle is back in good health and will travel to NC to perform her number "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" as well as a number from her smash hit cabaret "In the Summer of '69" and THAT is a holiday gift for all the folks in Elizabeth NC!
Aside from the good work that all of these artists, nay, all of these humans, are doing to help Benjamin House, the show itself is reason enough to see DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR? Whatever your religious affiliations, spiritual beliefs, or seasonal proclivities, this is an evening of damn fine entertainment with supremely talented singers creating music expertly arranged within an inch of its' life, and all of it overflowing with the spirit of the season which, after all, is just about humanity, about kindness and love, about friendship and doing the right thing.
Honestly, seeing DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR is doing the right thing. It's good for Benjamin House, it's good for the actors, it's good for the audience.
It's the most wonderful time of the year.
DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR played one performance in NYC on December 9th and will play the MUSEUM OF THE ALBEMARLE in Elizabeth City, North Carolina on December 14th. For information and tickets please visit the Benjamin House website, where you can learn all about BENJAMIN HOUSE and the great work that they do: Website
Find Robin Westle online at her Website
Find Arthur L. Ross online at his Website
Find Ben Moss online at his Website
Follow Billy Shaw on Instagram at @shaw.billy
Arthur L. Ross, Eric Michael Gillett, Billy ShawEric Michael Gillett and Melanie Vaughan Daniel Lincoln, Billy Shaw, Ben Moss, Arthur L. Ross
Cookie StarkJay Rogers
Arthur L. RossBilly Shaw Marta Sanders Eric Michael Gillett
Photos by Stephen Mosher