Review: Encore! Performing Arts Celebrates Milestone 20th Anniversary with COME ALIVE: CELEBRATING 20 YEARS OF ENCORE at Steinmetz Hall of Dr. Phillips Center

In a world filled with uncertainty and strife, it's a blessing that something as inherently good and selfless as Encore! Performing Arts continues to thrive.

By: Aug. 20, 2022
Review: Encore! Performing Arts Celebrates Milestone 20th Anniversary with COME ALIVE: CELEBRATING 20 YEARS OF ENCORE at Steinmetz Hall of Dr. Phillips Center
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Twenty years ago, a group of Walt Disney World cast members decided they wanted to put their talents to good use beyond their roles within the theme parks. Inspired by an Andrew Lloyd Webber "Birthday Concert" in which stars got together to celebrate the acclaimed composer, they likewise set out to create a concert setting - all on their own time and dime - to help benefit the Central Florida community they call home. What began as a contingent of nearly seventy players has expanded and grown over the next two decades as hundreds of members come and go at their leisure, based upon the time they can give and the talent they can share. In a world filled with uncertainty and strife, it's a blessing that something as inherently good and selfless as Encore! Performing Arts continues to thrive.

For much of Encore!'s lifetime, concerts were their bread and butter. Then, in 2015 they launched a full-fledged concert production of Elton John & Tim Rice's Aida, taking over the Walt Disney Theatre at the Dr. Phillips Center, for a limited two-evening showcase boasting a 50-piece orchestra, full cast in costume, and an entire choir in pyramid formation. Aida became the herald of a new age for Encore! as they then mounted musical concert productions of Ragtime (2016), Godspell (2017), and Hairspray (2017) at Dr. Phillips Center, while also branching out to The Abbey for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2018), Osceola Arts for Cabaret (2020) and Orlando Shakes for Head Over Heels (2021). Spelling Bee proved so popular that the show was remounted again with the same cast and crew at Dr. Phillips Center in 2019.

This weekend, Encore! celebrates twenty years by going back to their roots with COME ALIVE! CELEBRATING 20 YEARS OF ENCORE, a concert showcase of musical numbers that represent not only the best of past productions and performers, but a new vision for the future of what Encore! can do. This is their first time performing at Steinmetz Hall, a new extension of Dr. Phillips Center that finally opened this past January with a philharmonic orchestra performing Duke Ellington's Black, Brown, & Beige and Sacred Music. The acoustics in this hall has made this space ideal for Encore!'s 80-piece orchestra which, coupled with the Come Alive! Choir filling up three rows above, present a full-fledged Wall of Sound to every number they perform.

Of course, I can't say with any authority that they went the "Wall of Sound" route in the Phil Spector sense. His formula for recording music required intense layering of different instruments so that none drown out the other but contribute - like a puzzle - to a fuller picture at play. I'm not enough of an audiophile to actually say with any authority that Encore!'s orchestra and choir follow the same guidelines for Wall of Sound. But consider the fact that you can hear a triangle amidst the din during their Selections from The Phantom of the Opera, or that a cowbell is much more prominent than one would expect in "Bless the Lord" from Godspell. Nothing ever happens by accident on this stage, and the orchestrations of both those moments reflect that, as does the harmonics within the hall. I'm content to call it Wall of Sound even if it may not be, as both a testament to how well the Encore! team integrates every performer without overpowering another and a compliment to the use of the theatre space to their advantage.

COME ALIVE!'s musical numbers throughout the concert don't always give us Wall of Sound as two hours of showstoppers would surely exhaust an audience. Sure, we start off strong with the titular ensemble of "Come Alive," a vibrant Pasek & Paul ditty from 2017's The Greatest Showman. But there are also moments of quiet, moments of reflection. Ballads such as "She Used to Be Mine" from Waitress (Marissa Volpe) and "Dos Oruguitas" from Encanto (Juan Cantú) allow us to take pause, to let the music gently rock us in our seats. Even a traditionally-powerhouse number like "Maybe This Time" (Meg Stafanowicz reprising her 2020 Cabaret role of Sally Bowles) has a more calming nature to it, reminding us that happiness comes in on tiptoe (as Kander and Ebb would say) rather than running in guns blazing.

Song selection overall allows the audience to run through a full spectrum of emotions during this two-act concert. Jubilation, glee, empowerment, but also tranquility, peace, and catharsis. We get familiar favorites from the Broadway canon thanks to classic Rodgers & Hammerstein tunes like "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "Climb Every Mountain" (Katy Willis, Joan Bissell) Comedy comes in the form of Hamilton's "You'll Be Back" (Michael Angelini) and Spamalot's "Find Your Grail" (Beth Jones, Derek Hayden), as performers of both songs know what they're working with and give it the extra theatrical flair each song requires. We've also got a chance to rock out to a mash-up of "Bad Romance" and "Toxic" thanks to an unexpected contribution from the stage version of Moulin Rouge! (Scott Machado, Hannah Marincic). And then there are the divas, songs explicitly included because it allows a performer to belt out and hold those high notes as audience members give unprompted standing ovations: "Don't Forget Me" from Smash (Hannah Laird), "Out There" from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Nathan Meyer), the incomparable "As Long As You're Mine" from Wicked (Kristen Sheola, Natale Pirrotta).

Then there are songs that elicit unexpectedly stronger emotions. In particular, "Here You Are" from Head Over Heels brought a few tears to my eye last night. In the context of the musical, it's primarily a solo for Philoclea before her family joins in, one by one, as she mourns the death of Musidora. The staging is reproduced here, but has new meaning. Katy Williams takes the lead, with Lillie Eliza Thomas and Marissa Volpe reprising their Head Over Heels roles as Queen Gynecia and Pamela. Yet Matthew Warfield, armed with a microphone, stands resolute and silent. He played Dametas in the June 2021 production, but for this song assumes the role of King Basilius. Unlike Thomas and Volpe, who sing back-up to Williams in addition to their solo verses, Warfield does not sing. "Here You Are" serves as a memorial for Encore players who've passed on, with Warfield's stoic presence - there but not there - now representing the voices of those who sadly cannot sing. Just as in the musical, it becomes all too much for Philoclea (and Williams, who's holding back tears of her own), at which point Warfield steps in to conclude the song. It's a subtle reminder that even though some voices have been silenced, we still hear them in our hearts.

Seeing the 2021 Head Over Heels cast back on stage was just one of several reunions in COME ALIVE! We not only saw Arcadia's royal family again, but the competitors of the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, clad in more formal wear but still embodying the same familiar characters they had played twice before in two separate venues. I never realized how much I missed the Bee until I saw William Barfée (Michael Angelini) do that "foot thing" to spell out a word, or Leaf Coneybear (Ty Menard) absolutely fascinated by a harp. And Marcy Park (Robin Chinn) was still all business although she allowed for a moment of joy when taking her final pose with the rest of the students. Likewise, we got a callback to Aida with original 2015 ensembel member Faith Boles joining Lillie Eliza Thomas, France Neil, and Tatiana Rivera for "The Gods Love Nubia." And Hairspray, still the most joyous and jubilant of Encore!'s musicals, welcomed us back to Baltimore as Hannah Berry Matthews returned to her Tracy Turnblad role to sing "Good Morning, Baltimore."

In a way, COME ALIVE! is like the high school reunion we want to attend. Everyone who's taken part in an Encore! production has been invited back, with those able to join getting the chance to relive the moments that once lasted forever. The word "homecoming" got thrown around a lot last night when folks were talking about the concert, but it's a fitting moniker for what this event meant. Whilst skimming through the list of orchestra and choir members, I saw a lot of familiar names not just to Encore! Performing Arts, but to the local Central Florida theatre scene. I've seen and heard plenty of these performers outside the purview of Encore!, some in productions that may have overlapped another, others strictly in the confines of Walt Disney World's live entertainment. COME ALIVE! is a homecoming for all of them.

Amidst all these returns, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that at the helm of all this was Encore!'s co-founder and artistic director Clay Price. Conducting the orchestra in a bedazzled purple blazer, every performer makes sure to address him - be it with a nod or a fist-bump or even a flirtatious wink - during their number. Encore! simply wouldn't be Encore! without his creative vision; likewise, that of its stalwart director Michael Rodgers, its scenic designer Cliff Price, choir manager Jennifer Stevens, marketing director Tiffany Bagwell. There are so many names and so little time to address them all. Each and every member of this company has contributed to the betterment of the arts in Central Florida and ask nothing in return. We, the audience, are all the better for it. I cannot stress that enough. The arts give us an outlet, a purpose, a livelihood. The humble beginnings of Encore! Performing Arts has led to a continuing support of the arts here in Central Florida, a thriving region of local players whose productions can rival and equal that found on Broadway.

Twenty years on, and this company of players has become a Florida tradition. Every year, I look forward to what Encore!'s next production will be. I know whether it be a musical or a revue or a concert, the talent on the stage, in the wings, up in the sound booth, it's all going to deliver above and beyond. There's a comfort in the certainty of things, in knowing that a specific song can make you feel good, or that a joke heard a dozen times still makes you laugh. Likewise, when it comes to live entertainment, there's a comfort in the certainty of Encore! Performing Arts. Every show they give to the people of Central Florida is the culmination of a lot of talented folks who donate their time, love, and devotion to a production that may only last a weekend or two, but creates a bond with the audience that lasts forever.

Review: Encore! Performing Arts Celebrates Milestone 20th Anniversary with COME ALIVE: CELEBRATING 20 YEARS OF ENCORE at Steinmetz Hall of Dr. Phillips Center

In the interest of preserving this twentieth-anniversary celebration for their posterity and discovery by future Encore! fans, a complete set list of the concert is provided below:

Act One:
"Come Alive" from The Greatest Showman - Scott Weyrauch, Katrina Johnson, Kyle Ashe Wilkinson, Natale Pirrotta, Hannah Marincic, France Neil, Marysa Pratico
"Gimme Gimme" from Thoroughly Modern Millie - Jennifer Berry
"Strangers Like Me" from Tarzan - Matthew Warfield
"You'll Never Walk Alone" / "Climb Every Mountain" from Carousel & The Sound of Music - Katy Willis, Joan Bissell
"Don't Forget Me" from Smash (Bombshell) - Hannah Laird
"As Long As You're Mine" from Wicked - Kristen Sheola, Natale Pirrotta
"The Bells of Notre Dame" / "Out There" from The Hunchback of Notre Dame - Nathan Meyer
Selections from The Phantom of the Opera
"Backstage Romance" from Moulin Rouge! - Scott Mechado, Hannah Merincic
"The Flesh Failures" / "Let the Sunshine In" from Hair - Kyle Ashe Wilkinson, Katrina Johnson, Marysa Pratico
"She Used to Be Mine" from Waitress - Marissa Volpe
"The Winner Takes It All" from Mamma Mia! - Lulu Picart
"When You Believe" from The Prince of Egypt - Robin Chinn, John White
"You'll Be Back" from Hamilton - Michael Angelini
"The Gods Love Nuba" from Aida - Lillie Eliza Thomas, Faith Boles, France Neil, Tatiana Rivera

Act Two:
Selections from Ragtime
"Good Morning, Baltimore" from Hairspray - Hannah Berry Matthews
"Bless the Lord" from Godspell - Hannah McGinley Lemasters
"Maybe This Time" from Cabaret - Meg Stefanowicz
"25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" from 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee - Benjamin Crane, Amy Hughes, Kiernan O'Connor, Ty Menard, Robin Chinn, Michael Angelini, Joy Crane
"Here You Are" from Head Over Heels - Katy Williams, Lillie Eliza Thomas, Marissa Volpe, Matthew Warfield
"How Blest We Are" from Big River - Come Alive! Choir
"Someday" from The Hunchback of Notre Dame - Elizabeth Garozzo, Chase Williams
"Dos Oruguitas" from Encanto - Juan Cantú

"Shine Like the Sun" from 9 to 5 - Ali Bernards, Amy Hughes, Cat Cutenese
"Find Your Grail" from Spamalot - Beth Jones, Derek Hayden
"Show Yourself" from Frozen II - Neydi Jimenez, Joan Bissell
"I Have a Dream" from Mamma Mia! - Kiernan O'Connor
"Who Knows Where a Dream Might Lead" from The Golden Mickeys - Kiernan O'Connor, Kristen Sheola, Katy Willis, Lulu Picart, France Neil, Juan Cantú, Scott Weyrauch, Derek Hayden

COME ALIVE! runs at Steinmetz Hall at the Dr. Phillips Center through August 21, 2022. Tickets can be purchased here.

Photography by Tiffany Bagwell, used with permission.



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