by Milton W. Hamlin -
SGN Contributing Writer
The Seattle Women's Chorus opened the 2011 season for both itself and the Seattle Men's Chorus with a salute to country/western music, the audience-pleasing True Country. The three-hour program played two matinees last Saturday and Sunday at Benaroya Hall, where an enthusiastic crowd cheered SWC and guest star Chely Wright. The concerts were the official start of SWC's ninth year.
Wright, a major country/western star for nearly 20 years, recently came out as a Lesbian - and more recently married her female partner. Her heartfelt dialog with the audience was a highlight for many in the approving crowd. For others, it was a strange mixture of personal reflections that sometimes seemed longer than the following song. Her biggest hit, 'Single White Female,' closed the long program and had the audience almost dancing in the aisles.
True Country started as a salute to the Grand Ole Opry, where Wright often appeared until she came out. Interestingly, she has not been asked to return since her public disclosure of her personal life. The simple elements of the stage set established that we were at the Opry. The 200 members of the SWC entered down the two center aisles of Benaroya Hall - a surefire, audience-grabbing start. As the group settled in on stage, a Seattle version of Minnie Pearl, complete with price tag on her hat, sat at stage right. (A colleague from SGN sat at stage left, making an immediate connection for this scribe on his first SWC visit.)
'This One's for the Girls' was the ideal opening number for the SWC, all dressed in Opry finery. The song traces the stages of a woman's life, from age 13 to the mature years. Favorite lyric: At 25, 'living on dreams and Spaghetti-Os.' 'Wide Open Spaces' followed with much audience approval.
Lisa Koch and Peggy Platt followed as the first of several guest stars or SWC groups. As a 'mother-and-daughter' team, The Spudds, Platt and Koch (as usual) literally stopped the show. Mama Spudd's misunderstanding of 'Don't Ask, Don't Yell' ('because you girls can be so loud &') and a rewrite of 'Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys' ('cowboys' becoming first 'drag queens' and then 'bull dykes') brought gales of laughter from the appreciative audience.
'Tragic Country,' one of the three strongest segments of the show, followed. SWC tackled four 'tragic' tales - 'He Thinks I Still Care,' 'I Fall To Pieces' (with a strong solo by Dana Payne, SWC's on-target version of Patsy Cline), 'Stand By Your Man,' and 'D-I-V-O-R-C-E.' The last three, of course, ranked among audience highlights of the afternoon. Another guest star, Vance George, followed, and then Sensible Shoes, a sub-group of SWC, got its spotlight moment.
'Loretta Remembered,' the second of the special sequences, followed - another highlight. 'Coal Miner's Daughter,' with a great solo from Frances Merenda, 'You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man),' and 'Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind),' with a standout solo from Emily Carmichael, completed the set. Chely Wright ended Act One with several spotlight numbers (more on her later).
After intermission, the audience returned to its seats to find the set changed. From Grand Ole Opry to Seattle and a recreation of the late and lamented Timberline, Seattle's first major country/western bar and dance hall. The chorus, now dressed for line dancing at Timberline, flowed down the side aisles. Women Who Clog Too Much took a dance spotlight as the chorus tackled 'You Belong With Me.' A Dolly Parton segment followed - another highlight. 'Jolene,' 'Coat of Many Colors' (in a haunting version by a trio of SWC members: Jill Evans, Kathy Letgers, and Jennie Rhoads), and 'Why'd You Come In Here' all delighted the audience.
Chely Wright, who closed Act One and returned for an extended set to close the concert, is an accomplished performer. Her personal stories, especially the family tale of her brother, a career Marine Corps member, and how he inspired one of her biggest hits, 'The Bumper of My SUV,' were especially memorable. To her many fans, her songs - 'Like Me' (an important song in her coming-out process, she said), 'It Was,' 'Heavenly Days,' and the rompin', stompin' 'Single White Female' - were highlights of the afternoon, unforgettable moments of the concert. Her recent autobiography and an upcoming documentary film will undoubtedly please her loyal (and new) Emerald City fans.
The concert was conducted by Dennis Coleman, artistic director of both SMC and SWC, and Rhonda Juliano, SWC's assistant conductor. Coleman took the baton for the first act and Juliano tackled most of the second. Both brought out the best in the chorus.
SWC and SMC continue an ambitious 2011 season with upcoming holiday shows, out-of-town special concerts, spring and Pride programs. Complete information on all Flying House (the overall group which produces events for both choruses) productions is available at (206) 388-1400 or www.FlyingHouse.org.
True Country was this scribe's first visit to the Seattle Women's Chorus. It won't be the last.
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