Reviewed by Claudia Perry
The first installment of Bristol Riverside Theatre's Summer Musicale Series is War Songs II: More Songs of the Vietnam Era, featuring songs written between 1965 and 1975. Conceived, written and directed by Edward Keith Baker (who also serves as Musical Director and Accompanist), it features eight singers and explores the explosion of great songwriting from this ten year period. Some of the protest songs included in this production are just as relevant today as they were back then, songs such as: "The Eve of Destruction" (P..F. Sloan), Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind", Stephen Stills' "For What It's Worth" (one of my all time favorite songs) Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On" and Pete Seeger's (along with authors Horton, Hamilton & Caravan) "We Shall Overcome." The band, consisting of piano, bass, drums and guitar, are onstage as the performers sing in a concert style program. There is neither dialogue nor choreography linking the songs together. When the band plays an interlude, the performers either turn their backs to the audience (one assumes to feature the band) or move to the music. Once one has accepted this format, it can be enjoyed for the Pop/Rock show that it is.
Director Edward Keith Baker has presented the songs in a logical order as per the flow of ideas. His vocal harmonies are wonderful and always enhance a song's presentation. He has also added interesting musical endings that work well with the mood and tone of each number. In short, he's a very creative Musical Director and his passionate accompaniment on piano invigorates the production. All of the singers in this revue have terrific voices and each one brings something different to the production. Of special note are Keith Spencer who has a thrilling voice and a most pleasing onstage presence. He does total justice to "Mustang Sally" and "What's Going On". Victor Rodriguez works his smooth, sweet tenor and riveting charisma to perfection. When Mr. Rodriguez is onstage - clear the decks - he's in command. But what I appreciate most about his performance is his musical taste. He's a singer who knows when to take liberties with the melody and when to sing it straight from the heart. Stephanie Palumbo's husky tones make Carole King's "I Feel the Earth Move" sound as fresh and new as if it were written yesterday. Anthony D'Amato brings a high voltage energy and a great rock and roll voice to "Joy to the World" and "Fortunate Son". Demetria Joyce Baily seemed to be singing either too low or too high in her range in the first act - but when she hit the second act and sang (You Make Me Feel) "Like a Natural Woman" we found out what an exciting performer this lady is. (This song was obviously in her key - would that the other numbers were as well.)
Ellington by Starlight will be the next Summer Musicale running July 5th -- July 15th paying homage to the music of the great Duke Ellington. This will be followed by "Those Were the Days: From Motown to Malibu running August 2nd -- August 12th featuring pop music written between 1955 and 1965. These next two revues will be assembled and directed by Mr. Baker and one should assume that they will be just as exciting and enjoyable as this one was.