AUGUSTA - For many theater fans in west Michigan, the summer doesn’t really begin until the Barn Theatre opens its doors. The area’s equity summer-stock house on Saturday offered a preview of its 71st season with “A Lot of Song & A Little Dance,” a benefit concert showcasing many of the Barn’s returning stars and 21 of its young apprentices, the Actors’ Equity Membership Candidates who will appear on the mainstage and in the ever-popular Bar Shows.
While the atmosphere was casual and unpretentious, much like the “Music! Music! Music!” cabarets that launched many a season over the past 20 years, there was a remarkable amount of polish and energy in most of the performances, a quality even more surprising since (as master of ceremonies Brendan Ragotzy pointed out) the revue was put together in only “four or five days.”
The title did not lie: There was plenty of music, beginning with a trio of numbers from Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” the mainstage musical opening on June 13. The gorgeous, multi-layered chants that led into “The Bells of Notre Dame” immediately made it clear that the apprentices have already managed to meld their voices into a first-class ensemble. Throughout the evening, whether performing the title anthem from “Rent,” “21 Guns” (from “Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’”) or Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (featured in “We Will Rock You,” opening July 11), the chorus work sparkled, with lush harmonies and excellent modulation. Matt Shabala, in his fifth season as the Barn’s music director, had much to be proud of.
Not to be shown up by the newcomers, Barn veterans Robert Newman, Penelope Alex, John Jay Espino, Hans Friedrichs, Charlie King, Eric Parker and Samantha Rickard contributed notably sturdy performances of their own. Espino demonstrated his versatility with two strikingly different selections, the Irish traditional ballad, “Star of the County Down,” and “I Really Like Him” from “Man of La Mancha”; he was a fine Sancho Panza, but Espino’s tender delivery of “Star” was absolutely heart-melting.
King, a superb guitarist and natural charmer, easily knocked “Guv’ment” (from “Big River”) out of the park, and offered a sweetly sentimental rendition of his self-penned composition, “Barn Song.” Alex wrapped her smooth, coolly elegant voice around “Old Devil Moon” and infused “The Honor of Your Name” (from “The Civil War”) with a potent blend of wistfulness and poignancy.
Newman, who started his career at the Barn before becoming a long-running leading man on “The Guiding Light,” brought the right amount of spirit and showmanship to “There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute” (from “Barnum”), a song he admitted he had not performed since 1981. But if he felt rusty, it definitely did not show.
In one of the show’s lighter moments, a visibly uncomfortable Friedrichs initially made a stab at “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” from “The Sound of Music” – singing both Rolf and Liesel’s lines, no less – only to bail out on the tune, explaining, “I wasn’t that kind of German; I was this kind of German,” and launch into a considerably more assured “Wilkommen” from “Cabaret” instead. It was get-out-your-handkerchiefs time when Parker provided a searing, deeply moving version of “God Answered My Prayers” (from “Hands on a Hardbody”), and Rickard, the newest Equity member, soared with “Fly Into the Future” (from “Vanities”) and a fiery take on “21 Guns.”
The “dance” portion of the program, choreographed by Kasady Kwiatkowska, emerged with some “Grease”-meets-“Bye Bye Birdie” moves during “Johnny B. Goode” during the preview of “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” and again with the male apprentices strutting and leaping impressively in a sampling of songs from “Disney’s ‘Newsies,’” identified by Ragotzy as “the dancey-dance show of the summer.”
The evening wrapped with everyone onstage to perform “Seasons of Love” from “Rent,” which, Ragotzy reminded us, was written by former Barnie Jonathan Larson; it made its debut at the Barn in 2008 and it’s the only revival in this year’s line-up.
This year’s Barn schedule: “Disney’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’” (June 13-25); “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” (June 27-July 9); “We Will Rock you” (July 11-23); “The Lion in Winter,” featuring Newman and former “Guiding Light” co-star Kim Zimmer (July 25-August 6); “Disney’s ‘Newsies: The Musical’” (August 8-20); and “Rent” (August 22-September 3).
For more information, visit barntheatreschool.org.