The American Pops Orchestra ‘You’ve Got a Friend: A Singer-Songwriter Celebration’ at Arena Stage

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The American Pops Orchestra kicked off its fourth season with You’ve Got a Friend: A Singer-Songwriter Celebration featuring a diverse lineup of local and national talent at Arena Stage.

Maestro Luke Frazier, founder, conductor, and music director of the American Pops Orchestra (APO), presented an eclectic set of classic songs by Carole King, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and other icons of mid-20th-century American songwriting. Classical orchestrations played by the 20-member American Pops Orchestra were accentuated by six high-powered vocalists and the unique guitar stylings of Yasmin Williams.

Maestro Luke Frazier and the American Pops Orchestra. Photo by Glorianna Picini.
Maestro Luke Frazier and the American Pops Orchestra. Photo by Glorianna Picini.

TV-icon Morgan Fairchild and viral-video sensation MILCK shared top billing at the event, performing beloved songs including a mash-up of Carole King’s “It’s Too Late” and Carly Simon’s  “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain” (Fairchild) and a soulful performance of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” (MILCK).

Indeed, musical mash-ups and unique combos were the trademarks of the evening. In addition to featuring two headliners that drew in audience members of differing backgrounds, the music itself was a bold experiment in combining genres. The American Pops Orchestra is known for blurring lines between classical and contemporary and this night was no exception. Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” for example, featured a breathtaking and unique harp (Kate Rogers) and guitar (David Sanders) arrangement.

Featured singer Rayshun LaMarr was a clear fan favorite. The DC-based performer competed on NBC’s The Voice this season and is a regular fixture on the DC theater scene, having appeared on numerous DC stages, including Ford’s Theater. The four songs he performed for the APO featured fiery vocals, fabulous costume changes, and an energetic onstage personality that immediately won over the audience and earned him a spontaneous standing ovation on Les Baxter’s “Sinner Man.”

Rayshun Lamarr. Photo by Glorianna Picini.

Not to be outdone, NPR’s Ari Shapiro – who in addition to hosting All Things Considered is a fabulous performer -, Broadway’s Mariand Torres, and Nia Savoy completed the lineup of entertaining vocalists. Savoy, a musical-theater major at Howard University sizzled onstage after winning the NextGen: Finding the Voices of Tomorrow vocal competition that the APO co-sponsors with the Washington, DC chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters. Savoy’s sultry attitude matched her voice in a no-holds-barred rendition of Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.”

Maestro Frazier reminded the audience that each song they hear at an American Pops Orchestra event features a brand-new, never-been-heard-before arrangement and a unique APO sound. Frazier praised his orchestra which brought new character to songs traditionally thought of as voice and guitar numbers. Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” for example, featured a tender flute solo performed by Brittany Foster.

The malleability of the songs chosen by Frazier for all of his concerts is a testament to the universal appeal of these great American masterpieces. All are songs that have a life beyond any single musician who performs them. The American Pops Orchestra breathes new life into America’s musical masterpieces and proves that the American Songbook is a deep well that can unite listeners of all backgrounds.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

You’ve Got a Friend: A Singer-Songwriter Celebration played one-night-only on September 22, 2018, at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. For information on future American Pops Orchestra events go online.

Note: You can find the APO at Arena Stage throughout the 2018-2019 season, but you can also catch them at less traditional venues. Look for their performance on PBS (September 28th at 10pm EST) as part of the Hispanic Heritage Awards, or attend one of the Music and Mindfulness: Yoga with the American Pops Orchestra yoga sessions they will hold at the Dupont Underground.

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