BWW Reviews: THE STORY TOUR Delights Crowd at Patriot Center, Offers Something Unique
Though I am mostly known as a musical theatre geek, growing up as pretty much a 'church kid' - and later as an undergraduate student at a Christian liberal arts college - I listened to my share of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). So, a plethora of obscure and well-known cast recordings filled the same shelves as the latest offerings from award-winning CCM musicians like Nichole Nordeman, Natalie Grant, Jennifer Knapp, Ginny Owens, Rebecca St. James, Jeremy Camp, and many more. Throw in some select offerings from the more mainstream singer-songwriter pop/rock world, jazz, classical/world music, and an array of albums featuring American standards, and you have a pretty eclectic set of music that blares from my CD player or Ipod.
To this day, it's always interesting for me to consider how my diverse musical interests align with one another. So, this week, I decided to check out The Story Tour, which played the Patriot Center on Tuesday before it heads to Norfolk and then to select cities in Pennsylvania and New Jersey through December 15.
The tour includes some of today's top CCM musicians - Nichole Nordeman, Natalie Grant, Casting Crowns, Steven Curtis Chapman, Rawsrvnt, Matthew West, and Selah - as well as renowned author/pastor Randy Frazee providing in-between song narration, a delightfully skillful string-heavy 13-piece orchestra under the direction of Jim Gray, a rocking 5-piece band directed by Bernie Herms on piano, and stellar multimedia elements like lighting and video. Based on the 2012 Dove Award-winning album (Music Inspired by) The Story - itself based on books from Randy Frazee and Max Lucado - the now multi-year concert tour features songs that highlight the humanity of Biblical characters from the Old and New Testaments and celebrates one of the important elements of the Christmas season. For those looking for Christmas carols, before the artists delve into the original songs - written by Nichole Nordeman (lyrics) and Bernie Herms (music/arrangements) - the celebrated musicians joyously lead the audience in several faith-based selections like "Joy to the World" with support from a children's choir.
Overall, this event, sponsored by World Vision, is not your typical CCM arena concert. With the addition of narration, multimedia, and more musicians than you can (sadly) sometimes find in your local regional theatre or on Broadway, it plays out like a theatrical event albeit one that has an additional, more spiritual-based purpose. Though at times the dual purpose - in part due to the heavy narration -got in the way of presenting a streamlined, free-flowing, cohesive, and focused presentation of music backed by video, one has to at the very least admire the ambition at play.
Yes, the event is more than slightly too long for a family-oriented event - clocking in at over 3 hours - and there is a bit of a commercial for people to sponsor children under the auspices of World Vision shortly before intermission. However, the ever articulate and perceptive Nichole Nordeman presented the World Vision pitch in such a way that was so personalized and sincere that it didn't come off as off-putting as it might have in lesser hands.
But this is a concert review, so let's get to the music, shall we?
All of the artists featured on this year's tour are accomplished vocalists so if one is looking for skilled vocals, there's no shortage of that here. Vocally, the superb and very recent Grammy Award nominee Natalie Grant made an impression on every song she performed, hitting a highlight with "Alive," which exposes the vulnerability of Mary Magdalene. After a while, Herms' music can begin to sound the same from a composition perspective (with one exception or two), but her adeptness with dynamics and her enviable vocal control made this particular moment among the most aurally interesting. Not to mention, the convicted emotion she brought to Nordeman's lyrics added something special.
Another powerful moment came as Todd Smith (from Selah) took on the strong character of Job in "Broken Praise" as he deals with the challenges in his life yet still gives thanks to God for being there. His agile and textured voice proved nicely suited to the music and I appreciated that he didn't give an overwrought performance given the subject matter - as sometimes is the tendency of CCM artists. He nicely achieved a balance of sincere emotion and technical skill. Mark Hall (from the enormously popular Casting Crowns) achieved a nearly similar balance as he took on "When Love Sees You" - a song that highlights Jesus' perspective as he comes to terms with the reason God put him on Earth only to die on a cross.
Amy Perry (from Selah) was also successful in conveying a sense of realness and purpose as she took on the willing character of Esther in "Born for This." The interesting and unique colors in her voice also made her performance of this number a memorable one and made me wish she had more solo features in the concert (she also serves as a solid duet partner for Matthew West on "Good").
However, the highlight of the night by far came in the form of two songs - "I'm With You" and "Be Born in Me." The former, featuring Nichole Nordeman and Megan Garrett (from Casting Crowns), focuses on the close bond between Naomi and Ruth. The latter, sung by Nichole Nordeman, is essentially a means for Mary to come to terms what she's being asked to do (give birth to the Savior), what God is requiring from her, and the faith she'll need. Lyrically, these are two of Nordeman's strongest offerings and musically speaking, they provide a nice respite from the more common power ballads. (As an aside, to be clear, there's nothing wrong with power ballads - speaking as a lover all of those 11'oclock numbers in musical theatre - but there's something to be said about there being too much of a good thing in one set of songs). As sung by Nordeman and Garrett, the lyrics and music are given perfectly equal and unparalleled treatment. Understated, sincere, and no-frills, the performances were not just about showing off their exceptional vocal prowess - and trust me, they are exceptional musicians - but about doing justice to the material in a way that didn't seem forced or 'performance-like.'
Overall, this tour might not be for everyone, but for those that dig solid vocals, and are open to experiencing spiritual-based music, this is an offering to consider. At the very least, particularly in the Christmas season, it offers something a little unique.
Running Time: 3 hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission.
For a list of remaining tour dates, see the tour's website.
For more information on one of the artists taking part in the tour, see Nichole Nordeman's recent interview with BroadwayWorld DC: /washington-dc/article/BWW-Interviews-Award-Winning-SingerSongwriter-Nichole-Nordeman-Talks-THE-STORY-TOUR-Playing-the-Patriot-Center-1210-20131209
Graphic: Courtesy of Story Tour website