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BWW Reviews: Don't Miss Riverside's Crowd-pleasing MUSIC OF ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER

BWW Reviews: Don't Miss Riverside's Crowd-pleasing MUSIC OF ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER

Before I even begin this review, I say go ahead and forget about the old "Who is Better: Sondheim or Lloyd Webber?" question. It is a moot question. Both Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber occupy prime positions in the annals of musical theatre. Period.

But let's face facts: Andrew Lloyd Webber is about the biggest name in musical theatre and has been for the last 40-plus years. His success in producing hit shows is in the second half of the 20th century to the present is nearly unprecedented, since the days audiences first heard Webber's tunes for JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.

Add to JOSEPH and SUPERSTAR the likes of EVITA, STARLIGHT EXPRESS, and the juggernauts CATS and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and you have yourself a theatrical canon that is hard to beat for popularity. Even Webber's less successful shows - WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND and ASPECTS OF LOVE - contain tunes that stay with you for years to come.

Before I precede with my review, I also feel I need to give a shout out to all the lyricists Webber as worked with through the years. His name and fame tends to overshadow that of his collaborators but their words add the thoughts and dialogue to the passion his music evokes. Tim Rice, Don Black, Charles Hart, Richard Stilgoe, Jim Steinman, Christopher Hampton, and Glenn Slater represent the wordsmiths to nearly a dozen collaborations with Lord Andrew.

Which brings us to Riverside Center's newest production and one that the dinner theatre has assembled for the first time: THE MUSIC OF ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER. Conceived by Riverside's talented director Patrick A'Hearn, the top tunes from Webber's shows are front and center performed by a cast that handles the variety of music with style and skill galore.

Back in the 1990s, A'Hearn was on tour with Michael Crawford in a show with the same title as this one. As A'Hearn related, the original show was pretty much a concert with no-frills. (Of course, it starred the original Webber Phantom, so it was not without interest.) A'Hearn saw a chance to assemble a new Webber revue and has worked with associate director and choreographer Penny Ayn Maas and music director Anthony Smith to find the right balance of the big hits and the lesser known gems.

BWW Reviews: Don't Miss Riverside's Crowd-pleasing MUSIC OF ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER
Calvin Malone with Children's Ensemble in

I am happy to report, their mission is accomplished. And the creative team is ably abetted by the ensemble of singer-actors who take on the playlist. From "Superstar," which provides a rocking opening number, to a poignant trio singing the title song from the more recent LOVE NEVER DIES, the Riverside audience got what they paid for - a walk through some great songs, winningly sung.

Darian Lunsford kicked things off leading the company in "Superstar." Later in the show, Darian was well matched with Sylvern Groomes singing "Heaven on Their Minds," also from JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.

Andrea Kahane took on the iconic role of "Norma Desmond" in the SUNSET BOULEVARD section, while strong-voiced Chad W. Fornwalt sang the title song. Sara Ashley lent her charming voice to songs from JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT and SONG AND DANCE. Ian Lane and Sheri Hayden were featured in songs from EVITA, with Hayden's "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" being a highlight. Lane's ringing tenor voice also rang out as the soloist in "Hosanna" from REQUIEM.

A'Hearn's decision to include not only professional adult performers but a children's choir in THE MUSIC OF ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER was just about genius. JOSEPH already includes young voices as it is written, but A'Hearn creatively utilized the talented moppets in everything from songs from CATS to PHANTOM. The children's ensemble includes Angelina Beale, Elijah Beale, Evelyn Detar, Nathan Griffin, Muggs Leone, Alexa Norbeck, Julianna Robinson and Ethan Theriot.

Numerous musical numbers were also enhanced by the smooth moves and athletic grace of featured dancers Shawna Walker Hallinan and Bo Price.

All things being equal, special mention should be made of the remaining members of the singer-actors. Calvin Malone's quiet rendition of "Whistle Down the Wind" elicited more than a few sighs and left a number of patrons dabbing a tear from their eye. He also utilized his heart-touching voice in the powerful ballad from LOVE NEVER DIES, "'Til I Hear You Sing."

BWW Reviews: Don't Miss Riverside's Crowd-pleasing MUSIC OF ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER
Ashlie-Amber Harris

Possessing a naturally powerful voice and the ability to convey meaning from every word she sang was Ashlie-Amber Harris. Harris took on a variety of songs, making each one of them her own, especially the ubiquitous "Memory" from CATS and "I Don't Know How to Love Him" from JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. Come see Ashlie-Amber in Fredericksburg before you have to pay big bucks and travel to Broadway to see her. But if she makes it there, it would be worth the trip.

Another performer it's worth heading to Riverside for is Kelly Curtin. Remember that name: Kelly Curtin. Gifted with what seemed to be a four octave range, has the looks and the singing talent to show up at the Majestic Theatre in New York and slip in to the wig and costumes of Christine Daae right now. Lucky for Riverside audiences she can be seen in THE MUSIC OF ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER and we get to sample her stunning soprano voice. Curtin, needless to say, sings Christine's songs from both PHANTOM and the more recent sequel LOVE NEVER DIES.

I must also provide a bit of a spoiler at this point. The program, for the penultimate section, states "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Music of the Night" will be sung by "The Phantom." When Curtin begins to wow the crowd with her coloratura trills, who should show up but Broadway veteran and Riverside's producing artistic director Patrick A'Hearn. He joins Curtin for the title song and then takes center stage for a moment that literally stopped the show, as A'Hearn weaves a simple spell of music and magic with "The Music of the Night." This is a moment not to miss in a show you might want to see again and again.

BWW Reviews: Don't Miss Riverside's Crowd-pleasing MUSIC OF ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER
Kelly Curtin

The brilliant singing is supported by one of the best group of musicians Riverside has assembled, led by music director Anthony Smith. With a panoply of gorgeous costumes and a simple unit set with projections - designed respectively by Gaye Law and Benjamin Burke - and complemented by Anthony Cantrell's dramatic lighting, THE MUSIC OF ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER might be a show Riverside has to bring back again real soon. But your job is to get tickets to it now.

One Final Word: Since Riverside is a dinner theatre, it's worth noting the food is markedly improved. The management takes customer comments seriously and food quality was a constant theme. My wife and I both had the teriyaki-glazed salmon with seared shrimp with sticky rice and Asian vegetables. The meal was tasty and well-prepared. Other choices include a bacon-wrapped pork loin, a turkey pot pie or cheese and spinach ravioli.

THE MUSIC OF ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER continues through March 1, 2015 at Riverside Center, 95 Riverside Parkway, Fredericksburg, VA 22406. For information or tickets, go to Riverside Center HERE or call (540) 370-4300.

PHOTO CREDIT: Riverside Center

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From This Author Jeffrey Walker

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