BWW Reviews: Eric Schaeffer's 50th Birthday Concert at the Kennedy Center


I have been acquainted with Eric Schaeffer ever since I attended OVER AND OVER in the Signature Theatre initial home known as the Garage many years ago.

Since then, the new home of the Signature Theatre has been built and Schaeffer and the theater have even received a Tony Award for Best Regional Theater.

So when I heard he was to be honored at the Kennedy Center, I knew I would have to attend and report on how the theater community would celebrate his 50th Birthday.

I have only one criticism.  This two hour show should have been video-taped so theater-lovers everywhere could have witnessed this amazing epic of pure enjoyment.

As you entered the Eisenhower Theatre, the Signature Theatre Orchestra comprised of 24 pieces was ensconced on stage.  For the first time, patrons could watch Music Director and Conductor Jon Kalbfleisch perform since normally he and his orchestra are hidden somewhere backstage.  It was also a treat to watch pianist Gabriel Mangiante show his passion for the music all night long.

I couldn't think of a better way to begin the evening than playing "Overture" from Stephen Sondheim's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.

Managing Director Maggie Boland introduced the evening by stating that one could expect to see Eric's favorite singers perform his favorite numbers.  This was followed by a lovely video about Schaeffer.

The first number was an octet singing "Someone, Something, Somewhere" from Matt Connor's CROSSING.

One of the area's finest performers Natascia Diaz then performed "Happy Birthday, Darling" from BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY.

There were new lyrics (by John Dempsey) to "You're the Top" from ANYTHING GOES sung by Kirsten and Matt Scott.

Florence Lacy then belted out "Buenos Aires" from EVITA.

One of the true highlights of the evening was Heidi Blickenstaff who mentioned she traveled down from New York with no chance of not missing this event.  I remember seeing her in the Off-Broadway production of {title of show} and will see any show she is in. She sang "I'm Your Man" from MEET JOHN DOE which she was in at Ford's Theatre directed by Schaeffer.

The incredible Tracy Lynn Olivera sang one of Schaeffer's favorite songs, "Something Wonderful" from THE KING AND I and it was certainly something wonderful.

It was tear-making time next with "Move On/No One Is Alone" from Sondheim's SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE and INTO THE WOODS, arranged by Gabriel Mangiante brilliantly performed by the quartet of Olivera,  James GardinerMadeline Botteri, and Chris Mueller.

Eleasha Gamble then did a sensitive rendition of "Anytime" from ELEGIES: A SONG CYCLE.

Karma Camp and Matt Gardiner then told a few war stories about their relationships with Schaeffer.

Next came Carolyn Cole and Steven Walker did a lovely melody.

Guitarist Gerry Kunkel then accompanied Nova Y. Payton (who opens in the Signature production of long-awaited DREAMGIRLS tonight) sing a song made famous by Cher "Superstar".

Neil Bartram and Brian Hills's moving song "Click" from their musical SPIN was sung beautifully by James Gardiner.

It was mentioned that Signature Theatre has presented 38 world premiere musicals. One of them GIANT is about to make its debut at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre.  One of my favorite of these new musicals was BROTHER RUSSIA and Diaz sang the anthem "Siberia".

Jacquelyn Piro Donovan did a lovely rendition of "Is It Really Me" from 110 IN THE SHADE.

THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK  was represented by the trio of  Donovan, Olivera, and Blickenstaff who belted out the moving "Look at Me".

One of my favorite small musicals is FLOYD COLLINS and Matt Gardiner sang the lovely "How Glory Goes".

The terrific song "Home" from THE WIZ was done superbly by Gamble.

Blickenstaff returned for "Sing Happy" from FLORA THE RED MENACE. She then teamed with Gamble for "Money Tree/Maybe this Time" from FIRST YOU DREAM.

The classic musical FUNNY GIRL was represented by the song "Don't Rain on my Parade" by the exhilarating Nova.

A presentation was then made by Kevin J. Donnellan, Executive Vice President of the AARP which gave Schaeffer his first membership card. Then there was the presentation of Schaeffer gracing the cover of AARP Magazine.

Schaeffer then took the microphone to state "This is the best birthday ever...It's all about collaboration.  It's amazing when you get to do this...pass this thing move people emotionally. This is what we want." Schaeffer expressed pleasure that" Mr. Orchestrator" himself, Jonathan Tunick took the time to attend.

The finale was the appropriate "Old Friends" from MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG"  sung by the entire company.

Robert Aubry Davis did a superb job as the backstage MC.

Kudos to Director Matthew Gardiner, Lighting Designer Chris Lee, and Sound Designer Matt Rowe for pulling this off.

Singer, actor, composer, Matthew Conner gave a moving speech.  He talked about the many hats Schaeffer has worn.  "There's the Artistic Director Hat, there's the Director Hat, the Producer Hat, The Think Tank Hat, The Boss Hat, The Party Hat, The Office Hat, The Painting Hat, The Friend Hat, The Giving Hat (creating things like taking care of our own) and The Gardening Hat (that grows genius ideas like The American Musical Voices Project."  Conner called him a visionary, a creator, a genius, a friend..."

I second that!!

Thank you Mr. Schaeffer for making memories of a lifetime and Happy Birthday!

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