I just couldn’t help myself. For two hours last Friday night I couldn’t get the grin off my face.
Midnight Hour: Memories of Rhythm and Blues, created by Chris McHarge and Colin Stewart, currently on stage at Upper Canada Playhouse, is a celebration of some of the best Motown, Muscle Shoals, and Doo Wop music you’re going to hear this side of the 70’s.
There is nothing canned, and nothing artificial in this show.
And forget overproduced “kiddie pop.”
Midnight Hour is genuine, real music sung by a group of artists who know how to deliver a song. The only on stage pyro-technics in this show occur when the four singers burst into classics like Wait Till the Midnight Hour, Get It On, I’ll be There and Ride Sally Ride.
In an earlier interview with the Leader, Colin Stewart, co-creator of Midnight Hour, described how rhythm and blues is music that “really speaks to my heart. I played this music in bars in the 80s and I’ve loved it since forever.” Sometimes, he added, it feels a bit like real music is being lost these days. “You need the melody and that harmony that brings songs to life. That’s what this music has.”
Always a characteristic of a McHarge-Stewart production (they have a number of hits to their credit) is their insistence on top flight live musicians. In saxophonist Steve Trecarten, drummer Don Reid, keyboardist Dean Harrison, guitarist Mike Ray (and Stewart himself on bass), this Playhouse production has outstanding musical chops.
Trecarten, from Ottawa, is an accomplished and well-known blues, jazz and rock artist. Don Reid has a musical pedigree that stretches back to the 80s, with blues, jazz, theatre and classical music seasoning his talent. Dean Harrison comes from London, Ontario, but has toured Europe with John Elison and performed with Mel Brown, James Cotton and scores of others. He’s a long time performer with McHarge and Stewart, returning to the Playhouse for Midnight Hour. Mike Ray played for Tommy Hunter as a kid, and has opened for headliners like Johnny Cash and John Cougar. He is also a singer and a teacher.
The vocalists in this run of Midnight Hour are in a class by themselves.
They wrap the audience in the music.
Performing those wonderful songs – sassy, daring, soulful, fast and funky – the singers charm, thrill, and definitely ‘kick butt’ musically. They create an immediate rapport with the audience which simply builds throughout the show. (Frankly, Midnight Hour had me the moment Shane Phillips slipped into the opening bars of Georgia On My Mind.)
The musical range of Phillips, Jessica Cano (substituting October 30 only for regular artist Michelle Truman), Nicole Poynter and Gavin Hope has to be heard to be believed. The sheer versatility they demonstrated in the production was incredible. One minute honey sweet and sad (Poynter on Leaving on a Midnight Train), the next sexy and provocative (Cano in Chain Chain Chain). Heart-breakingly romantic in a number like Try a Little Tenderness (Phillips) and chameleon-like in adapting to literally any style of song, in any vocal range (Hope).
Listening to that level of talent for two hours was a joy.
In his extensive musical career, Gavin Hope was at one time the youngest member of the Nylons, has sung with untold numbers of Symphony orchestras and headliners, performed Simba in the Lion King and sung ‘Collins’ in Rent, among other major roles. Shane Phillips earned a spot on NBC’s The Voice, has released three albums of traditional soul, and is now exploring new musical venues in his latest release, Social Justice & Peace.
Nicole Poynter is a graduate of the Music Theatre and Commercial Performance program at Sheridan College, and already a seasoned and noted veteran of jazz, choral work and R&B. She admits she is “thrilled” to be performing in Midnight Hour. Jessica Cano, although stepping into the production for just the one night, had a phenomenal voice and seamlessly meshed with the other vocalists.
When the audience finally let the Midnight Hour singers and musicians off the stage at the end of Friday night’s show (and it took an encore) I had a quick visit with Colin Stewart.
“There were 42 songs in this show,” he said. “Some of them were just snippets. But the point was, we wanted everyone to walk away from Midnight Hour saying to themselves, ‘Yah! They played my song.’”
Did they ever.
Upper Canada Playhouse has added some additional shows to the Midnight Hour run. The McHarge-Stewart production will be at the theatre until November 8. Contact the UCP for ticket availability.