OK. I’m convinced. Peter Kiesewalter is some sort of a genius. And his bands like East Village Opera Company, which performed in K-State’s McCain Auditorium in the last couple of years, and the even more fancifully named Brooklyn Rundfunk Orkestrata, which appeared here last Friday night, blindside audiences with delightful entertainment.
The key to the delight is usually pretty simple. Kiesewalter sees relationships between famous vocal music and early 1970s popular song recordings. That’s it. So he plays Wagner’s Ride of the Valkires (for those of you who know opera only through Warner Brother’s cartoons, this is “Kill the Wabbit”) and we hear Lead Zeppelin. In fact, the arrangement is so good that since I heard EVOC play it, I haven’t been able to hear either the Wagner or the Jimmy Page without thinking like Peter Kiesewalter.
The listener, hearing what the keyboard-playing arranger has discovered, is delighted. In fact, the most effective of Kiesewalter’s synthesis (pun intended) jobs is laughter. I’ve laughed harder during performances by EVOC and BRO than at anything else I’ve seen at McCain in the last few years. My sides hurt last Friday. But I wasn’t laughing at the ideas.
BRO is a more modest undertaking than was EVOC. Opera is complicated, up-scale stuff and the East Village outfit features additional on-stage musicians and music from more sources—Tosca, Faust, Madame Butterfly, and so on). Brooklyn Rundfunk Orkestrata is really just a Rock quartet—electric bass, drum kit, guitarist, and keyboard player (Kiesewalter himself), traveling with three talented singers.
The new outfit only has one subject, too, and it is not only just a musical play but also one often disparaged by musical theater buffs—Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. In Manhattan the show proper was limited to performances of a dozen songs, including “Climb Every Mountain,” “My Favorite Things,” and “Do-Re-Mi,” most of them in versions substantially different from what one hears at a performance of the play.
The best example, and probably the highlight of the show, was “Do-Re-Me,” which was performed as if it were the Jackson 5’s “ABC.” Victoria Cave (known for this show as “Rusty Squirrel”) “channeled the ten-year-old Michael Jackson.” The rhythm chugged along Motown-like as the note metaphors were substituted for Jackson’s counting. “Sit down kids. I think I love you. No.” I was laughing aloud. How could one not?
The band underplayed ruthlessly—imagine Free without perspiration and you’d about have it. The solos were competent but, except for a little lower register noisemaking by Kiesewalter, were fairly studied, and the band actually referred to charts during the encore. But the musicians and singers played well, too.
The most daring of the arrangements turned the song for the musical’s marionette show, “The Lonely Goatherd,” into a Foreigner number, complete with screams behind the yodeling. “Something Good” became a late Marvin Gaye song with the repeating keyboard hook from Chaka Khan’s “Tell Me Something Good” thrown in gratis. “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” became bat mitzvah advice from a rabbi, and had a little middle east organ theme, all played with a Latin beat. There was rap. There was early fifties pop choral singing.
We heard light funk, afternoon blues, country (good sham steel guitar), “My Favorite Things” as if sung by Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane but with a recurring line from Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets,” and so on. Kiesewalter’s friendly narration helped fill out the show.
The encore tunes were, like a couple of the musical’s songs, given a more dignified treatment. They were from Handel’s Messiah, and the performances prompted were completely different sorts of revelations. EVOC has recorded a couple of re-imaginings of Handel’s Semele. Jimi Hendrix lived in an upstairs apartment in the house that had once belonged to the great oratorio composer. So Rock and Handel have met before, and they mix well.
But the mix couldn’t be as funny as the music in Brooklyn Rundfunk Orkestrata’s “The Hills Are Alive,” which is the name of their recorded collection of Sound of Music songs. The Handel may be as delightful, but because of its relatively unfamiliarity, it couldn’t be as absurd.