ELLSWORTH — It may be gray and dreary around here weather-wise, but those attending last Friday’s annual District VI Vocal Jazz Festival were treated to a dazzling display of color, sizzling music and thrilling dance as one high school and middle school choir after another demonstrated how talented and committed our students are.
The greater Ellsworth area was well represented with stunning performances by hosting Ellsworth High School and Sumner Memorial High School’s show choirs, both of which received top ratings from the judges, as did Mount Desert Island High School’s principal show choir.
Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School, Trenton Elementary School, Conners-Emerson School and Pemetic School also were audience and judge pleasers, earning well-deserved spots in the finals with their one ratings. Colin Graebert’s excellent jazz choir earned a one rating as well.
Earning two ratings for their worthy efforts, Peninsula and Mountain View schools’ show choirs and Ellsworth High’s new Treble show choirs also qualified for the finals in Millinocket.
The great day of song and dance started with the EHS jazz choir, which has never sounded better, delivering dreamy, pitch-perfect renditions of “Here’s That Rainy Day “and “I Can’t Believe You’re in Love with Me” and handling a difficult arrangement of “We Kiss in a Shadow.”
A new and welcome feature this year was hands-on critiques from judges George Redman and Heidi Corliss, both of whom addressed each group after their performances, pointing out what worked well and what could be improved. This feature could have been improved itself had the judges been miked so the audience could better hear what they had to say.
Redman, who incidentally has a fine singing voice himself and used it often to demonstrate a point he was making, praised the jazz choir’s energy, choral structure and harmonies, but added that their sound could be improved with more consistent breathing and better dynamics on the long notes. He then put them through a mini workshop applying his suggestions. It did make a noticeable difference. He and Corliss alternated this sort of helpful advice to the groups throughout the day.
The judges had plenty of good things to say about Sumner Memorial High School’s energetic and at times even acrobatic show choir performance of songs from the “High School Musical” movies.
Under the direction of Lisa Blanchette, this show choir improves every year, but with the addition of EHS alumna Melissa Wells as choreographer the choir took a great leap — and even a back flip — forward this year.
The music was a perfect vehicle for showcasing these teens’ strengths. Excellently costumed as high school jocks, cheerleaders, nerds and cliques, they gave it their all, managing to sing full volume while handling the complex choreography that not only used the complete stage and a set of bleachers but the auditorium as well.
Especially fun was “Status Quo,” which had some crazy dance moves and snuck in a hilarious Donald Trump joke. Every soloist was terrific, with special kudos to Delaney Woodward’s lovely rendition of “The Music in Me.” There were only two boys in the show, but Thiraphong “Ti” Janla delivered some of the best dance moves of the night with his peppy cheerleading and back-flipping partner Gabriella Richardson, while Josh Bamford won some of the biggest laughs with his strong, expressive voice and excellent comic timing — this kid’s an emerging triple threat.
Another highlight of the day was Ellsworth High School’s dynamic performance of music from “Frozen,” featuring Jasmine Ireland’s off-the-chain choreography. But it began in complete stillness with a gorgeously harmonic choral rendition of “Heimr Arnadair,” which would have served beautifully at a real royal coronation.
Most poignant was their rendition of “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?” which made a seamless transition from playful to heart-achingly sad. Hannah Box’s duet with Garrett Moyer on “Love is an Open Door” was just as much fun as the movie version. According to music director Rebecca Wright, “Frozen” fans will have to wait until the finals to hear the choir’s rendition of the hugely popular “Let it Go.”
Without question the most adorable performance of the day was Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School show choir’s “Lion King,” which featured Will Stephenson’s excellent direction, costumes by Susan Bissett and Rachel Libitski that made the kids looks like cuddly stuffed animals and some amazing choreography from seventh-grade choir member Lauren Billings, who may one day give Julie Taymor a run for her money.
In addition, Lauren’s “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was one of many sterling solos of the show, deliciously backed up by the full choir’s “wimowehs.”
At first this choir looked disappointingly small as the singers took their places on stage, but when the Energizer bunny of a baboon Seneca Maddocks-Wilbur started belting out the opening number suddenly giraffes, elephants, gazelles and beautiful birds of paradise started appearing from stage right, stage left and the auditorium aisles eventually filling the stage with feathers, fur and fabulousness.
Music director Malen Hsu has worked a something of a miracle here, not only with the show’s tuneful, robust chorus sound but also with each and every soloist who sang powerfully, on key and seemed to truly understand the words.
Although Caleb Leathers is small, he was mighty, indeed, as young Simba in “I Can’t Wait to be King;” Maddie Henry milked her role as Pumba the warthog for every possible laugh and both Noe Burmeister and Kai Phelps brought just the right amount of melancholy to “Shadowlands.”
Judge Corliss heaped the young EEMS choir with praise and by way of constructive criticism suggested that they were all so cute in their costumes they really didn’t look scary enough at the more dramatic moments. She worked with them on this for a bit, but they remained pretty darn cute. If they do manage to get their fierceness on for the finals they should be real contenders this year.
In a close contest for adorable was Trenton Middle School’s Trentones mash-up of music from “Annie” and “Newsies.” Director and choreographer Mary de Koning is another miracle worker getting such a full sound and fully committed performance from her students. She had them singing softly and plaintively in the wistful “Maybe” then shaking the rafters with their voices and stamping feet in “It’s a Hard Knock Life.” They even performed a nice little tap routine for “Kings of New York.”
Ellsworth High’s new Treble choir, which was nicely directed by students Hannah Box and Jessica Cohen, and middle schools Mount View and Peninsula each had some fine musical moments with their medleys of Disney tunes or songs from “Newsies” and got some great advice from the judges about projection and focus.
The finals will be held in Millinocket on April 1 and 2.