Huron Country's Big Band Legends is a crowd-pleasing trip down memory lane

Big Band Legends
Conceived & Directed by Alex Mustakas
Orchestrations & Vocal Arrangements by Howard Cable
Music Direction by Elizabeth Baird
Choreographed by Gino Berti

Huron Country Playhouse, June 27 - July 14

Big Band Legends is the 5th installment in Drayton Entertainment's highly popular original "Legends" series. In the same tradition this production honours the crooners and songbirds who dominated the charts for the past 80 years with a hit parade of classics. Backed by an all-star orchestra featuring arrangements by Canada's own Big Band legend Howard Cable, this upbeat production is packed with classics from such icons as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole, mid-century stalwarts Tony Bennett, Neil Diamond, Paul Anka, Doris Day, and Bobby Darin, and modern day superstars Harry Connick, Jr. and Michael Bublé.

The Beat Magazine's Richard Young and Val Cavalini attended the opening night of Big Band Legends on Thursday June 28.

Richard: I have to admit that at my first glance of this production's list of Musical Numbers, I wondered how on earth the cast and musicians were ever going to get through them all in one evening. I counted 77 numbers! But, once the show started, I realized that we were going to be hearing snippets of each tune.

Val: Yes, I wondered about that too. By necessity, the show moves at a quick pace, giving the audience only a taste of most songs. This can be a double-edged sword. I know personally there were certain songs, like Where The Boys Are, that I would have liked to have heard in their entirety. But, all in all, the audience gets the biggest bang possible for its buck.

Richard: As a long-time musician, I was familiar with every tune featured in the show, having played most of them at some point in my career. Did you notice how the opening night audience expressed its approval of several songs with appreciative applause?

Val: It was especially obvious for the McGuire and Andrews Sisters numbers and the Frank Sinatra medley.

Richard: One of the many strengths of the production was the decision to position the 9-piece band prominently on stage, rather than "hide" them in the theatre's pit. Since the instrumentation was such an important part of the big band era, this was probably a no-brainer. And what a band it is! Under the direction of Elizabeth Baird, the band demonstrated its musical chops throughout the evening.

Val: If I recall the only instrumental piece was a Tommy Dorsey Orchestra number in the First Act.  Perhaps a few more pure instrumentals are in order, but I quibble.

Richard: While there were numerous strong individual vocal performances, this production is undoubtedly an ensemble effort. The eight vocalists perform in a number of different combinations.

Val: I thought Barbara Mantini's rendition of Ella Fitzgerald's Gypsy in My Soul  and Michael Vanhevel's take on Nat King Cole's Mona Lisa were outstanding. But, you're right. It is definitely an ensemble piece. The Mantini Sisters are particularly strong in their "Girl Group" offerings with their distinctive three-part harmonies.

Richard: I thought Eddie Glen's comedic scenes, includng his rendition of Danny Kaye's Tongue Twisters, were spot-on for the production.

Val: Agreed. I liked his broom-horse and chaps in the Happy Trails medley. Hilarious!

Richard: I thought the opportunities for audience participation in the form of sing-a-longs were a nice touch.

Val: Yes, I was very surprised as to how much I remembered of That's Amore and Moon River. And what about the outstanding peformances of the dancers Kimberly O'Neill and Jesse Weafer?

Richard: I thought the two dancers were marvelous! They complemented the music and never upstaged the vocalists. After all, dancing was an important component of the Big Band era, so having the dancers on stage made good sense and the audience loved them.

Val: I liked the dancers' interpretation of the Salute to the Services and Jesse Weafer's sultry moves in Peggy Lee's Fever.

Richard: I really liked the use of multiple projection screens to show photo stills and video-clips of the artists and period scenes.

Val: This will be especially useful to younger audience members not familiar with the crooners and songbirds featured in the production.

Richard: One criticism - While most of the musical medleys worked fine, a couple of them - like the one featuring Neil Sedaka, Paul Anka and Neil Diamond - seemed almost jarring and discordant at times. But this in no way detracts from the rest of the show.

Val: Big Band Legends should be a crowd-pleasing production for Drayton Entertainment this summer. It's a feel-good, uplifting show that leaves the audience wanting more.

Richard: For sure, the opening night standing ovation was an affirmation of Alex Mustakas' vision. Full houses should reward his efforts and those of his cast and crew.

(Out of 4)

Richard Young is the Publisher/Managing Editor of The Beat Magazine.

Val Cavalini is the Online Events Editor of The Beat Magazine.

Talbot Centre