Nearing its fourth decade, the internationally acclaimed, award-winning female African-American a cappella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock takes the stage at the Merriam Theater Feb. 28.
The group was founded in 1973 by Bernice Johnson Reagon, who was teaching a vocal workshop with the Washington, D.C. Black Repertory Company.
Around that same time, Carol Maillard, who was studying at Catholic University, was recruited to join the group and became one of the original members. Performing on and off with the group, Maillard, today an accomplished singer/songwriter and actress, is known for her powerful rendition of a “Motherless Child,’ arranged for Sweet Honey, and featured in the motion picture, “The Visit,” as well as the Dorothy Height documentary, “We Are Not Vanishing.”
According to Maillard, over the decades, more than 20 individuals have lent their voices to Sweet Honey. Beginning as a quartet, the group is now composed of six African-American women.
“All the women in the group have their own lives dealing with children and whatever kinds of situations that may come up,” Maillard explains. “So over the years we’ve added a singer and said goodbye to another. And so on and so forth. But we always have a system of substitutes just in case something happens to somebody who just couldn’t show up. We always have a number of people we can get in touch with at the last minute, if necessary.”
Though with the group from the very beginning, Maillard herself has come and gone. When not singing with Honey, she has established herself as an actress who has performed in film, television and on stage. She has performed on and off-Broadway in any number of shows and styles, including the Negro Ensemble Company, the New York Shakespeare Festival and more.
“But when I’m back singing with Honey, I think I most enjoy listening to everyb0dy else in the group and watching their performances,” Maillard says. “I try to perform with the group as often as I can.”
Sweet Honey in the Rock has been producing music for many decades, and although the members of the group have changed over time, their music has consistently combined contemporary rhythms and narratives with a musical style rooted in the gospel music, spirituals and hymns of the African-American church.
With music that tends to focus on social justice, they have addressed topics including motherhood, spirituality, freedom, civil rights, domestic violence, immigration issues and racism.
With a new album, ”Live! Jazz at Lincoln Center” scheduled for release Feb. 26, two days before their Philly performance, Maillard says their album pays homage to several women who were the inspirations behind their work through the years -- “women like Odetta, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba and others.”
While Maillard says she’s not entirely sure what is in store for her after the Philly performance, she continues to keep herself very, very busy.
“Being the project director for Sweet Honey keeps me busy and takes up a lot of time, especially as far as organizational work and promoting our new show marking our 40th anniversary to be called ‘Forty and Fierce’ and scheduled for the Fall of 2013.”
And even though the group has been around for four decades, Maillard insists they want to continue to expand.
“We don’t want to rest on our laurels,” she says. “We are always looking for ways to explore and expand as artists. And as issues continue to emerge, hopefully we’ll still be writing, recording and doing special projects.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 893-1999.
“Riverdance” proudly returns to Philadelphia and the Merriam Theater for two days only, May 11-13, marking the end of an era.
After some 1,500 dancers, 15,000 hours of rehearsal, 14,000 dance shoes, and 16 years later, the worldwide phenomenon that branded Irish step dancing is finally coming to a close in the United States — although it will continue on in other countries.
“Riverdance” producer Moya Doherty acknowledges that no one ever thought that a show like this would still be running all these years later. “Three years ago we embarked on our farewell tour, saying good-bye to every city in North America we have ever played in over the years. And now our troupe will say goodbye forever to the U.S.
“It has been a source of immense pride for me as producer that America took ‘Riverdance’ to its heart to such an amazing extent,“ she continues, “and I would like to pay tribute to every dancer, musician, singer, and all the crew and staff who served ‘Riverdance’ so well over the years.”
One of those dancers is Jason E. Bernard, who has tap danced his way into the hearts of audiences everywhere. A native of the Bronx, New York, Bernard has been with “Riverdance” on an off over the past decade.
For those who have never seen the show — and surely there can‘t be many —“Riverdance” includes several different types of dance, including Russian ballet, Flamenco, and tap dancing.
“I started with the show in 2001 when I was 20,” says tap dancer Bernard. “I’m now 31 and I’ve been in and out of the company all these years. I spent most of my 20s traveling and performing with them, so the thought of it coming to an end is a sad thing to imagine.”
Bernard was just six years old when he started taking dance lessons. He remembers, “My sister danced first, so my mother and I used to sit around all day Saturday waiting for her to finish. I used to listen to the sounds of the dance, and being around all that energy and seeing how people reacted to it, made me want to do it too.”
And so he did, winning an audition and eventually a scholarship to the Dance Company of Harlem. And by the time he was 17, he made his Broadway debut in the Tony-Award winning musical “Bring in ‘da Noise Bring in ‘da Funk.”
Bernard next made his feature film debut in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled.” Bernard was a featured performer in CoisCeim Dance Theatre in the world premiere of “Dodgems” and was also featured and toured in Ireland in the revival of “Boxes.”
In “Riverdance,” the Irish step dancers and the tap dancers fight a sort of dance duel that is filled with unbelievable energy. “About 85 percent of the dance is choreographed, and the rest is improvised,” Bernard says. “We are able to react off each other, and be challenged and energized by the power of the dance.”
And that power reaches all the audience throughout the show, Bernard emphasizes, which is why, in his opinion, the show has lasted so long. “This show is all about the music that people can so identify with. Everyone who has ever seen it is totally affected by it. When the show starts, when the dancers come out on stage, it’s like you’re on a train ride that doesn’t stop until it gets to the end. And I think people keep coming back just for that because there’s never been anything like ‘Riverdance’ and I don’t think there ever will be again.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 731-3333.
Celebrating the 55th anniversary of the longest consecutively running jazz festival in the world, The Monterey Jazz Festival arrives in Philadelphia at the Merriam Theater Feb. 2 at 8 p.m.
Featured artists include Christian McBride, Benny Green, Lewis Nash, Chris Potter, Ambrose Akinmusire, and the multi-talented Dee Dee Bridgewater.
Born Denise Eileen Garrett in Memphis, Tenn., her father was a jazz trumpeter and a school teacher who exposed his young daughter to jazz early on. At the age of sixteen, she was a member of a rock and rhythm ‘n’ blues trio before she eventually took off on her own.
“After winning some talent shows, my dad got me jobs in local clubs, which is where I started to learn my craft,” she says. “In 1970, I met and married Cecil (Bridgewater) and we moved to New York City where Cecil played in Horace Silver’s band, and I eventually joined the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra as the lead vocalist, which I think was my major professional breakthrough.”
Since then, Bridgewater has enjoyed a multifaceted career spanning more than four decades, earning three Grammy awards while pursuing a parallel career in musical theater and winning a Tony Award for her role as Glinda, the Good Witch of the South in ”The Wiz.”
Other theatrical credits include “Sophisticated Ladies,” “Black Ballad,” “Carmen” and “Lady Day,” a Billie Holiday tribute for which Bridgewater received the British Laurence Oliver Nomination for Best Actress in a Musical.
Bridgewater also has the distinction of being the first African-American actress to play the role of Sally Bowles in “Cabaret,” a production mounted in Paris.
“I love both facets of my career,“ she offers, “and I wouldn’t mind doing more theater work but I never seem to be able to find the time to make it happen.”
That’s probably because she is so busy doing so many other things. Among her other work, Bridgewater acts as a Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) while continuing to fight against world hunger.
Additionally, she continues hosting NPR’s award-winning weekly syndicated show, “JazzSet with Dee Dee Bridgewater,” now in its second decade on the air.
She’s also continuing additional work on her album “Red Earth,” released in 2008, and featuring African-inspired themes and contributions by numerous musicians from the West African nation of Mali, while digging into her own ancestry there.
And while she describes herself as primarily a jazz singer, she admits to loving all genres of music. “So I would say I am a jazz singer who can do just about everything else.”
And it would seem that every day Bridgewater seeks to add new meaning to her life with various projects. “I love everything I do and I have no regrets, none at all,” she insists. “I believe that we gain from every experience we have in life. We learn from the bad things and profit from the good. I choose to have a positive outlook about it all.”
Her main goal, she concludes, “is to fondly embrace my past as well as my present while looking happily into my future.”
For more information, call (215) 893-1999.
“Drumline Live” kicks off its fourth U.S. tour bringing the American marching band experience to the Merriam Theater Oct. 17-18.
With musicians who are fast with their sticks and just as fast with their feet, Don P. Roberts, the show’s director and creator says, “We’ve taken the excitement of an HBCU football game halftime show, increased the intensity by a thousand watts, and created a musical journey that will touch every emotion.”
Roberts was the executive band consultant for the 2002 nationally and internationally acclaimed hit movie, “Drumline,” nominated in 2003 by the NAACP as Most Outstanding Motion picture, and American Choreography Award for Outstanding achievement in Feature Films. Roberts was responsible for training the actors, writing precision drills and rehearsing the band.
“At the time I was a high school band director in Georgia and had the idea that this would be great on stage as well as on film,” said Roberts. “In the beginning, however, nobody had any idea how to put a marching band on stage, and it took me until 2008 to get it all together and prove I could.”
Since then Roberts has proven himself a musical force to be reckoned with. Today, his vision has not only become reality but a huge success, featuring, he notes, “a large cast of vivid and exciting performers from America’s top historically Black colleges and universities in a true family-oriented show that will appeal to people of all ages.”
The show’s program features a musical blend of soul, funk, gospel jazz and rock with songs by the legendary Earth Wind & Fire and Tower of Power. As with the music of marching bands everywhere, it also features heavy doses of drum riffs, cadences and funky footwork.
“You can’t be in this show if you’re not a good musician and your dance skills are not up to par,” Roberts says. “We look for extremely good musicians in our auditions and they have to have extremely good coordination.”
According to Roberts, the most difficult part in doing this show “is touring with a cast of 31 as well as a technical crew. But now we’ve got it down to a workable system with everyone functioning like a family. I also think the greatest thing about this show, and what makes it so successful, is that everyone loves what they’re dong. There’s no acting on stage. Everyone’s just being themselves.”
The appeal of “Drumline Live” is palpable, even when touring overseas.
“We brought the show to Japan and Korea three times,” said Roberts, “and were warned that the audiences were very different from American audiences, that they would not be showing much emotion.
“But within five minutes of the show’s beginning, everybody in Japan was standing on their feet,” Roberts continues. “This is a very high energy show and the response we get from our audience, no matter what country we play in, is wonderful. I’m not bragging, but I feel like we’re one of the best shows out there right now.”
He adds that the show will, “touch every emotion in your body. We’re going to make you laugh, sing, cry and applaud. If you’re not feeling good before you get to our show, you’re going to be feeling better during and afterward.”
Roberts is admittedly not a trained Hollywood director.
“I was simply a band director who somehow got involved in all this,” he said. “But this whole experience was and still is a dream for me. And I just don’t ever want to wake up!”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 893-1999.
“American Idiot,” a 2010 Grammy Award winner for Best Musical Show Album featuring the music of Green Day, makes its Philadelphia premiere Feb. 12-17 at the Merriam Theater.
Winner of two Tony Awards, “American Idiot” is the story of three boyhood friends, each searching for meaning in a post 9-11 world.
“Since its inception, audiences have been surprised by the emotional journey the show takes them on, told almost exclusively through Green Day’s songs, including many they are already familiar with and love,” said Tom Hulce, producer. “This is such a potent time for our country and the search of our characters for what we believe in is gorgeously celebrated through Bill Joe Armstrong [lead singer] and Green Day’s wonderful fully lush score,” he added.
The musical features the hits “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “21 Guns,” “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” and more including the blockbuster title track “American Idiot” from Green’s multi platinum 2004 album.
Appearing in the show is Cherry Hill’s singer/actress Aurie Ceylon, who sings the featured song, “Too Much Too Soon,” in every performance. The Howard University graduate also understudies both female leads. Just 22-years-old, this is her first big break in show business — and it took her a full year to get the role.
“A friend of mine saw the show on Broadway and thought I’d be really good in it,” said Ceylon. “I had never seen it but I took his word for it. So when I heard they were doing auditions, I traveled all day long just to get to the audition and try out.”
But that was even harder than she thought it would be.
“First of all they auditioned the equity players first. And since I was non-equity, I was one of the last to try out,” she said. “Then, I had about 10 to 12 call-backs while they were deciding who would have the role.”
And after nearly a year, she was awarded the part.
“I think other would-be performers should realize it can take that long to get a role,” said Ceylon. “They have to realize this is a long-term auditioning process so they should stay positive. You have to stay optimistic and hope they’ll eventually call. The did call me and so here I am today.”
Ceylon is proud of the work she does in the show, proud of the song she sings, and very happy to have filled in for the lead five times since she started in the show.
“It seems so amazing to me that all this has happened to me shortly after I graduated from college. I never thought it would happen so fast,” she said.
But it did and here she is enjoying every moment of it.
“I’m working with an amazing cast, mostly in their 20s, who can truly represent the post 9-11 generation,” she said. “It’s an electrifying thrill I feel on stage just working with them. It’s a young cast of very talented people.”
Ceylon feels that although she’s very fortunate to have gotten this role, there is still a lot of ground to cover for African American performers.
“I feel most of us are pigeon-holed, although not so much in this show,” said Ceylon. “I feel I’m sort of in-between because of the way I look and a lot of casting directors still don’t know where to do with me. It’s much more comfortable for me and others with the new crop of musicals that are coming along.”
So she just keeps giving it her all and advises others to do the same.
“You’re not going to book everything every time you try out,” she said. “But eventually someone, somewhere will see you and want to give you a part. I believe that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. So stay prepared.”
For times and ticket information call (215) 893-1999.
Legendary pianist and composer Chucho Valdes and the Afro-Cuban Messengers will take the stage at the Merriam Theater on Thursday, Jan. 26. The performance features performances from the Grammy Award winning album, “Chucho’s Steps,” with special guests Danilo Perez opening the evening.
Speaking by telephone from Spain through an interpreter, Valdes says music from his latest CD will highlight the evening, as well as some of his better known compositions performed with Irakere, the group he founded in 1972, and some newer compositions being planned for his CD release in 2013.
Born in Cuba to famed Cuban pianist and former director of Havana’s famous Tropicana nightclub band, Bebo Valdes, Chucho Valdes explains that music has always been in his genes and his passion. He says that he began his musical training with his father and playing piano at the age of three.
“By the time I was five, I was getting really good at it, but I was still too young to attend the Conservatory, so my father hired a tutor. But by the age of nine I was ready and entered the Conservatory where I began learning classic music.”
By the time he was 16, Valdes had formed his own group, being influenced musically not only by his father, but by the likes of American musicians such as Art Tatum, Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane and others. In his latest CD, he pays homage to some of those who have influenced him the most.
For example, the title track pays homage to Coltrane and his masterpiece “Giant Steps,” rounding out the harmonic structure in 50 bars without repetition. The upbeat and funky opening track, “Zawinul’s Mambo,” pays tribute to Austrian keyboardist and composer, Joe Zawinul. And “New Orleans” is a tribute to the musicians of New Orleans, specifically the Marsalis family, pinpointing a walk through the history of the “birthplace of jazz” beginning with Jelly Roll Morton’s transformation of ragtime to jazz.
Today, Valdes’ own style melds his diverse experiences and skills: classical, jazz, hip-hop, Cuban and swing, making him one of Cuba’s foremost bandleaders, composers and arrangers as he interprets his own brand of jazz.
“I like all genres of jazz,” Valdes says, “including old school Cuban jazz, blues, classic, and also good pop music by the likes of Stevie Wonder, and Earth Wind and Fire.”
At the age of 70 and with four Grammy awards under his belt, Valdes says he has no desire to retire. “Retire to what? I will never, never retire.”
Living now in Spain and helping to care for his 94-year-old father, Valdes continues to tour the world.
In 2006, Valdes was nominated Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Two years later, Sony released an album of Valdes playing with his famous father.
For the future, Valdes says he’d most like to form his own music school where he can leave the legacy of what he’s learned to a whole new younger generation of musicians.
“I’m also working on a symphonic project of Latin jazz, something like what Gershwin did. You know, I think about jazz a lot, and I think what keeps this kind of music going is the variety of rhythms it contains. I think that’s what keeps audiences enthused.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 893-1999.