Lesser-known works fare best in Elton John revue

Reviewed by George Basler

In his remarkable  40+-year career, nobody has ever accused Elton John of understatement.

To the contrary, John’s name conjures up a rock star image with over-the-top performances in large arenas and stadiums, outrageous costumes and driving rock bands. One image that doesn’t leap to mind is performing his songs in a intimate, cabaret setting, with only a keyboard accompanist.

That is the challenge being taken on this weekend by the Half Light Theatre, a new local theater group, which is peforming a wide-ranging concert of the composer’s work in the outdoor courtyard of the Roberson Museum and Science Center, 30 Front St., Binghamton. The revue, featuring eight singers backed by pianist Ken Martinak, opened Friday (July 13) and will continue at 7:30 p.m. today (Saturday, July 14) and at 3 p.m. Sunday (July 15).

The singers met the challenge with mixed results Friday night as they performed  a variety of Sir Elton’s songs ranging from his major pop hits of the 1970s and 1980s to his more recent Broadway show tunes and lesser- known works.

The first half was competent and pleasant enough, but the show didn’t really jell for me until after intermission. In the second half, the singers seemed to step up their performances and connect more emotionally with John’s songs. Perhaps that’s became the second half leaned more heavily on ballads that came across better in the cabaret setting than John’s more up-tempo numbers, which really needed a rock band.

The production is directed by Half Light Executive Director Missy Harris, who is also one of the performers and does a first-rate job on “Electricity” from the musical Billy Elliott. Joining her are John Penird, Brett Nichols, Matt Gardner, Chris Nickerson, Barbara Vartanian, Laura Liburdi and Ilana Lieberman.

While John’s career includes 56 top-40 songs, Half Light’s revue — at least in my opinion — worked best when the singers tackled songs more obscure than the major hits.

The problem with trying to replicate Elton John’s major hits is that the singer’s interpretations are so well known that cover versions sound like carbon copies. That’s all very nice, but not especially memorable. Familiarity breeds contempt.

By contrast, the Half Light performances of the lesser-known works sounded fresh and unique. (I would include in these, the songs from John’s Broadway shows, including The Lion King). At least for me, they were a revelation of John’s skills as a composer.

A case in point was Nichols’ performance of “Sail Me Away”, a song I’ve never heard. In fact Nichols, in a joking introduction, said nobody’s ever heard of it. The performance was great.

A second case in point was Liburdi’s performance of “Sacrifice,” another song completely unknown to me. It was gorgeous.

The revue had other highlights as well. Penird did a first-rate jobs on “The Circle of Life” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” Lieberman, who is only going into her senior year at Vestal High School, acquitted herself well with “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” Gardner did a spirited version of “Bennie and the Jets,” and the entire company, led by Nickerson, appropriately hammed up “Crocodile Rock” at the end of the show.

Also worth mentioning was a a funny cameo appearance by Tim Mollen, artistic director of Half Light. Mollen, in a good natured way, skewered some of the lyrics of Bernie Taupin who is John’s long-time collaborator. Let’s face it, Taupin’s lyrics are a bit bizarre at times. Who can forget the immortal words “back to howling owl in the woods, hunting the horny back toad,” from “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” If you have, Mollen will remind you.

So all in all, Half Light’s revue was pleasant, light summer entertainment, which is really all it’s intended to be. You could do worse on a nice July night. If you’re an Elton John fan, you won’t be disappointed. If you’re a casual listener, you should enjoy it as well. If you don’t like Elton John, stay home and ignore the records.

General admission tickets are $15 in advance, and $18 at the door. You can purchase tickets by calling Roberson at 772-0660 or going online to www.roberson.org.

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