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July 5, 2006

Choral work takes wrong turn into kitsch

San Jose Mercury News (CA):

Over the past decade, conductor Daniel Hughes has built a remarkable chorus. The Choral Project, as it is called, has won international notice for its rich and finely balanced blend of voices. Its 44 members, all unpaid, seem willing to do anything for Hughes; every week they drive from as far as Santa Rosa and Stockton to rehearse with their artistic director in San Jose.

In "One is the All,'' Hughes' new multi-media musical production, which had two performances at the California Theatre over the weekend, the Choral Project has even become a dance troupe. Hughes' singers spent much of their time moving -- beautifully -- as an undulating mass, performing a war dance, a circle dance and other choreographed set pieces, almost always while singing. Back-lit in deep red on a darkened stage, they made a sight worthy of Broadway.Unfortunately, "One is the All'' is not ready to move onward and upward in the theater world.

Part of the problem is fiscal. This mythic tale about a man, a woman and their child, told through music and movement, needs more dancers, more visuals (and how about some sets?) to really fill the stage and make a consistent impact. Attending Sunday's performance, I suspected that what Hughes was seeing in his head was a lot bigger than what was happening on stage. After all, his chorus' $180,000 operating budget for the entire 2005-06 season doesn't afford much legroom for an ambitious production such as this.

But the problem goes deeper than money. "One is the All'' is a labor of love, but a misguided one. Its music is its script: The story -- about life and its inevitable cycles -- unfolds via a sequence of choral pieces by composers ranging from Broadway's Stephen Schwartz and Claude Debussy, in the first half, to generic Disney-esque songs in the second. As the chorus sings (and dances), a handful of solo dancers also take the stage; they are our ``actors,'' an archetypal family through which the simple tale of love and courtship, marriage and children, war and famine and, finally, death and the afterlife, is illustrated.

The first half manages to evoke melancholy and joy; the second half goes off the rails with its Hallmark evocations of family, death, and, yes, even the circle of life. It's as if Thomas Kinkade has been brought on as consultant, to up the quotient of kitsch. The finale, composer Paul Halley's amalgam of Gregorian chant and Nigerian tribal song, is almost ludicrous "Lion King'' mimicry.

It's too bad, because Hughes -- responsible for the selection and sequencing of music, the storyboard, and overall conception -- wants to accomplish so much. (No more performances are scheduled, by the way.) He has long felt that audiences raised in the age of glitzy popular entertainment need a bridge to the classical and choral music world, where performances can be highly static.

"One is the All'' is his intended bridge. It has many strengths: excellent singing; precise, uncluttered conducting by Hughes; tender and elegiac works by Norman Dello Joio, Charles Villier Stanford and Hughes himself; the sculptural beauty of several choreographed set pieces. Yet overall, it remains too static and veers too close to the glitzy-pop side of things.

This isn't the "visionary epic'' alluded to in the production's program. On the other hand, it's Hughes' first effort at building that bridge. He can do better.

Posted by acapnews at July 5, 2006 10:49 PM