Review: ‘Respect! A Tribute to Aretha Franklin’ at the American Pops Orchestra

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Five fabulous divas joined the innovative new American Pops Orchestra to celebrate the music of Aretha Franklin at the Arena Stage’s Fichandler Stage on September 16. An energized audience sang, swayed – and, at times – nearly levitated above their seats as this breathtaking tour through Franklin’s years with Atlantic Records (1967-1979) called up vibrant memories. The Queen of Soul should be more than pleased.

Luke Frazier. Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

Luke Frazier, founder and musical director of the American Pops Orchestra, assembled a spectacular group of singers to pay homage to Franklin. Michelle Williams, formerly of Destiny’s Child, headlined the evening. Her rendition of “A Natural Woman” was a masterpiece of careful phrasing, raw emotion, delicate decoration, and melodic range. Ariana DeBose, an original cast member of Hamilton who recently starred in A Bronx Tale on Broadway, punctuated “Chain of Fools” with soaring energy and driving rhythm.

Versatile Canadian singer and trumpet player Bria Skonberg, played a haunting version of “Spanish Harlem” and showed off her equally superb vocal skills on “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do).” Moya Angela, who got her Broadway start in The Lion King and played Portia in the TV Series 30 Rock, excelled in “Young, Gifted and Black” and “The House That Jack Built.” Helen Hayes Award recipient Nova Payton performed a sensitive version of “See Saw” and brought the house down with her rendition of “A Change is Gonna Come.” Of course, one couldn’t ask for better material, but the choice of these fine performers to bring Franklin’s music to life, concluding with an ensemble performance of “Respect,” was truly inspired.

Luke Frazier introduced the evening by alluding to the orchestra’s youth. Founded in 2015, he told us that they are just now getting their “big kid teeth.” The ensemble’s development will no doubt be nurtured by support from philanthropist Adrienne Arsht, who, Mr. Frazier announced, has agreed to be their 2017-2018 Signature Season Sponsor.

Michelle Williams. Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

In addition to their spirited musicianship throughout the night, Mr. Frazier called on members of the orchestra for solo work. Particularly affecting was clarinetist Daniel Frazelle’s rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Directed by Kelly Crandall d’Amboise, the production used the Fichandler Stage’s challenging geometry to great effect. The performers alternated their entrances from all four of the theater’s portals, and gently encircled both the audience and the orchestra as they sang. Each entrance was accompanied by a costume change, and the performers flirted shamelessly with the audience to our ever-increasing delight. They fed our anticipation not only of the next song, but also our eagerness to see what fantastic plumage they would sport. We were not disappointed on either score! Sequins, spangles, incredible hairdos, and imaginative head gear worthy of Franklin herself punctuated the evening, matching the vocal splendors with visual marvels.

The American Pops Orchestra is a terrific addition to Washington DC’s diverse musical scene. Breathing new life into orchestral pops programming, its lively performances inspire new audiences to discover the richness of the Great American Songbook, loosely conceived as the canon of the most important and influential American popular songs and jazz standards from the early 20th century. Last year’s performances included “I’ll Be Seeing You: A World War II Love Story,” and a tribute to Barbra Streisand. In 2018, they’ll present “Let’s Misbehave: Cole Porter After Dark,” among others. The American Pops Orchestra is just cutting its teeth on our cherished musical heritage. Stay tuned — we look forward to more!

Respect! A Tribute to Aretha Franklin was performed for one night only on September 16, 2017, at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater — 1101 Sixth Street in Washington, DC. For information on the upcoming Arena productions, go online. For more information on The American Pops Orchestra upcoming performances go online.

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