Minnesingers Bring Broadway to Island

By NIS KILDEGAARD

It's been a common shorthand for years to describe the Minnesingers, the elite performing ensemble of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, as a singing group that also dances. This past weekend's show at the Performing Arts Center left fans groping not only for new superlatives but even for new ways of describing the group. Perhaps it's best to call Minnesingers a powerful weapon of mass entertainment, and leave it at that.

Close followers of this globe-trotting show choir still talk about the dramatic high-water mark set by the Minnesingers in 1998 when they performed Stomp, a dance number of sheer energy and athleticism. Stomp was largely the work of a young dancer, Jil Matrisciano, who choreographed that year's show. This year, Ms. Matrisciano was back as choreographer, and the audience was eager to see if she could top her previous work with the ensemble. They were not disappointed.

We're sure many Islanders who went back to the Performing Arts Center Sunday afternoon to see the show a second time were looking forward most eagerly to the program's stunning highlight, Girl in the Yellow Dress, from the Broadway show Contact. It's safe to say the Minnesingers have never before attempted a dance number so ambitious, nor have they ever succeeded so well.

The setting is a nightclub. A lonely and disheartened man (Jesse Wiener) walks in and engages the barkeep (Ben Retmier) in conversation. All around them, women are dancing with imaginary partners to music that pours from the sound system. Then, in a dramatic, sashaying entrance, appears the piece's namesake, played by Emma Lovewell. When she begins dancing, the effect is electric. The man at the bar protests that he can't dance, but he is caught up in her spell and drawn onto the dance floor, where his clumsiness is a comic foil to the grace and power of the girl in the yellow dress. Suddenly, at the end of the number, he is transformed and joins the ensemble in a breathtaking dance sequence. The piece ends with all the dancers arranged in a tight tableau at center stage.

The audience at the Performing Arts Center caught its breath, and then basically went berserk.

Amid the applause, we remembered the words of Minnesingers director Dan Murphy during intermission. "Hey," he'd said, grinning, to a friend in the audience as he made his way toward the control booth, "wait'll you see this."

There's so much that could be said in praise of the Minnesingers in this production, a show that was intended to be taken on the road and performed in England until war forced cancellation of the trip. For two hours that seemed to pass in minutes, the choir showed what wonders can be accomplished when the boundless energy of youth is harnessed with discipline and channeled with creativity.

The choir opened its show in trademark fashion, in formal tuxedos and dresses, arrayed on risers and singing from the classical repertoire. This is the moment when many fans take the measure of this year's vintage - near the end of a school season, when Mr. Murphy has had most of an academic year to train and shape the Minnesingers as a musical instrument. This year's ensemble lacked the sheer vocal horsepower of some Minnesingers groups we can recall, but their phrasing was full, their attacks immaculate and their enunciation clear. When they sang in unison, as in the plaintive recitative passages of Let My Prayers Rise Like Incense, the choir seemed a single voice. When the singers split into four-part harmonies, the effect was doubly dramatic for that, and the voices hit the sweet center of each note.

The choral selections that introduce a spring show by the Minnesingers are a bit like the compulsory figures events in Olympic skating. They might not be the most fun for the performers, but they provide the setting in which essential skills are polished. This year, it was obvious that the Minnesingers went for high-gloss, and they got it.

But the most crowd-pleasing portion of this show was On Broadway, a romp through the great literature of music written for the popular stage. We lost track of the many costume changes - Abbey Bailey deserves a medal for her work as costumer for the ensemble. For all the madness that must have been going on backstage (another medal goes to stage manager Jeff Caruthers), the show was a seamless experience for the audience, because it had so expertly been interspersed with solo and duo numbers, giving the cast time to change.

These little pieces did more than hold the program together - they showcased some of the wonderful individual talents among the Minnesingers this year. Adam Lipsky was both hilarious and endearing in full country-bumpkin regalia as he sang Hand for the Hog, from the musical Big River. "If you took a notion," he sang, hands jammed into the pockets of his bib overalls, "I'll bet you could teach a hog to smoke a cigarette. Well, it might take a little bit of time - But hell, what's time to a hog?"

The haunting duet from Les Miserables, Little Fall of Rain, was sung with such sweet understatement by Lily Morris and Jesse Wiener that it carried a surprising emotional wallop. And Kaila Binney and Jonathan Ryan showed both singing and thespian skills in their impressive solos, Nothing (A Chorus Line) and Mr. Cellophane (Chicago).

The numbers that rocked the house were the productions that featured most of the Minnesingers. Only 31 of them were listed on the program, but there must have been some mistake - with all the energy and color on stage, there seemed twice that number at least.

An ensemble of six young women - Kaila Binney, Evy Constantine, Ali Wilson, Christine Brissette, Jenna Zadeh and Sara LaPiana - radiated a smoldering, man-eating sexuality in the jailhouse number from Chicago, Cell Block Tango. The whole cast had way too much fun with their Time Warp number from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (with Alex Paquet-Whall as the ghoulish Riffraff). The boys bonded with Ben Retmier in a lively scene from Big River, and the girls scrubbed floors and complained fetchingly in their scene from Annie, It's a Hard Knock Life: "No one cares for you a smidge, When you're in an orphanage!"

The show ended with two rousing numbers from Grease, the musical that so perfectly captures the energy of the teenage years. Then it was time for standing applause, and for bouquets to honor the 11 Minnesingers whom the troupe will lose to graduation this year.

Dan Murphy will be building his ensemble next year without three of his five bass singers, four altos, two tenors and two sopranos. But he's been leading this group now since 1996, long enough to know that with its great tradition, the Minnesingers show choir will attract a new generation of stars in the season ahead.