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BWW Review: Young Artists of America Premieres THE CIRCLE OF LIFE: THE SONGS OF TIM RICE IN CONCERT

On Sunday evening, more than 100 young talents in the DC Metro area paid tribute to renowned lyricist Sir Tim Rice in a world premiere concert at the Music Center at Strathmore. Devised and directed by Hugh Wooldridge for the Young Artists of America (YAA) - a Strathmore-based arts education institution - THE CIRCLE OF LIFE: THE SONGS OF TIM RICE IN CONCERT was nothing less than a case study in ambition.

The concert showcased the exceptional talents of the YAA Youth Orchestra, YAA Vocal Ensemble, YAA Junior, several other collaborating arts organizations, and a handful of professional performers, including Broadway's Adam Pascal. It also illustrated the sheer impact that Tim Rice (appearing via video) has had in musical theatre and beyond with an array of notable collaborators such as Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, Alan Menken, and Sir Elton John. While there were a few bumps in the road, one has to admire the dedication of the student artists to deliver energetic performances and the willingness of the creative team to put it all together.

Under Kristofer Sanz's skillful baton, the YAA Youth Orchestra (including a handful of guest musicians, including Broadway guitarist Kevin Kuhn) expertly played a range of styles, from up-tempo rock numbers to musical theatre ballads. The YAA singers, under the vocal direction of Rolando Sanz and Terry Eberhardt, provided clear, crisp and technically proficient vocals at all times.

Several musical highlights emerged.

The concert marked the premiere of the AIDA Suite (arranged by Paul Bogaev and Lee Freeman) and the orchestra played it with exceptionally well leaving me wanting more. There was also some great harmonic choral work on "Requiem for Evita" from EVITA. The Walt Whitman High School Chorus (directed by Jeffrey H. Davidson) and the YAA Vocal Ensemble delivered some fine vocal performances in this number, which thankfully (mostly) distracted me from the overdone and superfluous choreography. The Walt Whitman High School Chorus continued its fine vocal work on "Anthem" (from CHESS) and "Saul Has Slain His Thousands" from the underappreciated KING DAVID. The latter, however, is but one example of how the most curious decision to amplify the musicians hindered opportunities to hear and appreciate all of the melodic and harmonic nuances of the vocals. There's really no reason to amplify an orchestra of this size, especially in a hall with such fine acoustics as Strathmore. Better lighting design (Hugh Wooldridge) would have also allowed the audience to see all of the choral singers.

While all of the student vocalists shined, a few of the featured ones shined especially bright. First and foremost was Emily Reed. Technically, her confident rendition of "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" rivaled some professional singers and she made the most of her time in the spotlight. Later in the concert, she slayed "Nobody's Side" from CHESS. I became even more impressed with the young talent when she sang "Elaborate Lives" (from AIDA), with Adam Pascal because she held her own both in terms of vocals and performance, which is no small feat considering Mr. Pascal originated the role of Radames. I look forward to seeing her more in the future. She has a professional career ahead of her if she wants one. With time and practice, I am confident she can learn to connect with the lyrics even more than she does now.

Camilla Maric also left an impression with "You Must Love Me" (from EVITA), as did Bella Zindash on "Home" (from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST). Zindash's rendition of this number not only featured crystal clear vocals, but also a perfect mix of longing and hope. Jillian Tate's technical proficiency and pleasing tone made "Already Home" (from the Lloyd Webber version of THE WIZARD OF OZ) and a "Whole New World" (from ALADDIN) highlights. Together with her duet partners (Amanda Primosch and Sam Nasar, respectively), she delivered some quite fine vocals.

Adam Pascal, of course, also did not disappoint, and it was nice to see that he clearly enjoyed performing with the students and did not - at any point - try to upstage them. Whether "Heaven on their Minds" (JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR), "Pity the Child" (CHESS), "One Night in Bangkok" (CHESS), "Radames' Letter" (AIDA), or the aforementioned "Elaborate Lives," he provided a master class is not only how to sing a variety of music theatre styles, but also connect with the lyrics, and entertain.

Other guest vocalists included Perry Sook and Chani Werely. While they both clearly enjoyed performing with the students, Sook, in particular, seemed to take every opportunity to pull focus from the students. His "more is better" and somewhat cheesy approach to performing did not particularly work for me either.

While the choreography was generally more of a distraction than anything else (let's just say, the choreographers clearly have a "thing" for waving), there was one moment where the dance added value. Dancers Emanuel Tavares (appearing courtesy of the Virginia National Ballet) and Brittany Yevoli embodied Aladdin and Princess Jasmine as Nasar and Tate sang "A Whole New World." They performed Rafik Hegab's well-packaged choreography extremely well and remained connected to the music throughout. This number would have been even more effective, however, if Nasar and Tate were given the opportunity to deliver the vocals front and center rather than from a platform upstage placed behind the orchestra.

In sum, this concert - while overly long - was successful in that it gave the students an opportunity to share their wonderful musical talents. While I wish that the creative team had always kept the student performers first in every decision they made and took a bit more time to tech the show, one has to give them kudos for taking the time and effort to put it together. Likewise, the concert in and of itself provides a nice overview of Tim Rice's career. It features some of his best work and some somewhat rare gems like "This is My Time" from THE LIKES OF US, written early in his career. Perhaps in future productions, a selection or two from his most recent work, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, which had its American premiere over the summer, might be included.

Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, Including one intermission.

THE CIRCLE OF LIFE: THE SONGS OF TIM RICE, was performed at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland on March 12, 2017.

Show graphic courtesy of YAA website.

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