116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Writing a review of Saturday night’s Brucemorchestra extravaganza is challenging my vocabulary. I opened my thesaurus to “spectacular,” and here are my choices:
“Magnificent, gorgeous, glorious, striking, elaborate, sumptuous, impressive, showy, eye-filling, splendid, opulent, ceremonious, grand, rich, stately, jeweled, bespangled, theatrical, fabulous, marvelous, astounding, overwhelming.“
Orchestra Iowa’s season opener was all that, and so much more, as roughly 5,000 people gathered on the front lawn at Brucemore mansion, ready to be dazzled. Orchestra Iowa CEO Jeffrey Collier said the final ticket count will take several days to tally, but the lawn was as full as I remember from the years when upward of 5,000 people flocked to the event.
With perfect skies overhead and Broadway stars shimmering onstage alongside spectacular local talent from musical theater, instrumental and choral realms, it truly was a grand night for singing the music of Rodgers & Hammerstein.
It was a grand night to just be together. I lost count of the number of times I teared up not only because of the beauty of the performances, but the overwhelming splendor of sharing the experience with the electricity of a live audience. Nothing compares with the living, breathing organism created by performers and listeners. Shouts of “bravo” pierced the night air, beginning to end.
All the performers were vaccinated against COVID-19, and orchestra and Cedar Rapids Concert Chorale members seated onstage were masked, as well, including Tim Hankewich, Orchestra Iowa musical director.
The musical theater elite and dancers performing on a front stage extension, away from the cluster of musicians, were not masked, and while I spotted some masks in the audience, most guests did not wear them. This drew mixed reaction on social media, with people in the audience replying that they were fully vaccinated, felt safe with their family and friends, and had space between themselves and others.
For those who didn’t or couldn’t come but still wanted to hear the music, KCCK-FM broadcast the concert live, potentially reaching a global audience via the KCCK mobile app.
And what a concert it was, with so many instantly recognizable numbers from “State Fair,” “The King and I,” “South Pacific,” “Carousel,” “The Sound of Music” and “Oklahoma!” We even heard a snippet from “Cinderella” in the opening orchestral overture.
It may have been 560 days since Orchestra Iowa musicians played together, but those days melted away with the downbeat. The orchestra, under Maestro Hankewich’s artistry and baton, sounded just as magnificent and well-oiled as ever.
Revival Theatre Company, the region’s best musical theater producers, brought high-caliber Broadway performers with local ties to the stage, alongside the best and brightest Eastern Iowa performers.
Cedar Rapids native Christopher Johnstone set the tone by strolling up an aisle with “It’s a Grand Night for Singing,” from “State Fair,” set at the 1946 Iowa State Fair. With his leading-man looks and dreamy baritone, this Broadway and national touring company veteran continued to draw oohs and sighs through “We Kiss in a Shadow” with Amy Friedl Stoner, a local star who sings in New York cabarets. Johnstone later wrapped his charms around “Some Enchanted Evening.”
Elena Shaddow, a Broadway and national touring featured actor married to Cedar Rapids native Michael Harrington, made the spotlight glow even brighter with “Hello, Young Lovers,” from “The King and I,” a show in which she starred for the Lincoln Center’s tour.
She is so expressive not only with her shimmering soprano, but with every well-placed, effortless gesture on that song and on “Whistle a Happy Tune,” among her other featured and ensemble moments. The chemistry was palpable when she and Johnstone gazed into each other’s eyes on “If I Loved You,” from “Carousel.”
But it was another number from “Carousel” that truly was the highlight of the evening: Ezekiel Andrew on “Soliloquy.” A Mississippi native who now performs nationally, he wowed local audiences in Revival Theatre’s 2018 production of “Ragtime.” He was every bit as captivating Saturday night, on this showstopping number from the 1945 hit musical in which the lead character, Billy, imagines what it will be like to be a father.
Andrew’s passion, power and perfect diction resonated throughout the piece, creating something truly special.
Rounding out the soloists were Broadway veteran and Cedar Rapids native Catherine Blades, who sparkles every time she sings; Brandon Burkhardt, another top-flight local performer; and Loralee Songer, a former Coe College music professor who captivated the crowd with her soul-stirring “Climb Every Mountain” from “The Sound of Music.”
No one onstage merely whistled a happy tune in this concert showcase. They fully embodied each and every song. They became each character, if only for a moment before pivoting to another show, another role.
Revival Theatre also created a dance corps choreographed by Megan Helmers, with balletic moves floating through “The Carousel Waltz” and an “Oklahoma!” medley. And even singing through masks, the Cedar Rapids Concert Chorale, under the direction of Gerald Kreitzer, added such richness throughout the evening, alongside an orchestra that’s back in all its glory.
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