Tampa Bay – Una Voce’s evening of choral music Friday, June 12 at St. Petersburg’s Palladium, then reprised at Tampa’s new USF Concert Hall June 13, was brilliantly conceived and executed. The main event was the Florida premiere of famed Broadway composer Andrew Lippa’s I Am Harvey Milk. Milk, the first elected openly gay official in the country, is an iconic transformative figure for the LGBTQ community. As important as his efforts were, the chorale’s program acknowledged other leaders for social justice upon whose shoulders we stand.
“The music we’re singing tonight,” ventured Tom Barker, Managing Director of Una Voce, “is important for all people in the Tampa Bay area. The evening honors heroes who have led the way for social justice.”
The evening began with an upbeat “Tshotsholoza.” Considered the unofficial anthem of South Africa, this tongue twisting tribute to Nelson Mandela also proved white men can jump. Soloist Will Hession’s voice rocketed above its complex rhythms and dense harmonies. This number was followed by a reverential choral version of “We Shall Overcome” in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Honoring Gloria Steinem, soprano Ruthie Nelson was at her best during the evening in “Back to Before” from the show Ragtime. Named Florida Female Vocalist of the Year by the Federation of Music Clubs, classically trained Nelson showed the audience she also has the edge to belt out a Broadway tune.Tenor Chris Romeo then stepped into the spotlight with “Go the Distance” from the movie Hercules. With Keith Haring’s graffiti parables as a backdrop, Romeo’s brilliant rendition brought the Palladium audience to its feet. This is someone whose musical career is clearly on an upward trajectory.
The first half of the show closed with three short pieces, moving us from the somber to the hilarious – superb programming by new Artistic Director Joseph Caulkins. Tom Barker read the words of AIDS activist Larry Kramer, reminding us of dark days: “We shouldn’t face a death sentence because of who we are and who we loved”. Caulkins’ evocative arrangement of Ysaye Barnwell’s Wanting Memories underscored the evening’s theme that justice makes a claim on all. The first half ended with an uproarious “Color Out of Colorado,” proving that gay men can not only sing well, but hours in the gym building bubble butts can put some bump in the production.
After intermission came the Florida premiere of Andrew Lippa’s I Am Harvey Milk. Una Voce is among the first chorales in the country to be licensed to perform the piece other than those who underwrote the commission.
The oratorio is 12 numbers each making the statement “I Am…”. In the book of Exodus, when Moses asks God his name, the response is “I Am Who I AM”, revealing all, but answering nothing. Composer and lyricist Andrew Lippa, who is Jewish, as was Harvey Milk, approaches Milk’s life from this Biblical perspective. Each “I Am” in the song cycle treats Milk’s life prophetically. Each is an affirmation, a question or a foreshadowing. The form of an oratorio—for example, Handel’s Messiah or Mendelssohn’s Elijah—is that of a large staged work focused primarily on sacred subjects. This fact was not lost on Lippa, better known for his Broadway hit The Addams Family.
When asked “Why this piece?” Lippa responded “Creating I Am Harvey Milk is a gay bar mitzvah of sorts, a reminder that I belong to something big and beautiful and complicated … I hope I Am Harvey Milk reminds each audience member that they too belong to something bigger than themselves.”
Each of the 12 songs deserves its own review. Yet there isn’t space. As an overview, let’s say new Artistic Director Joseph Caulkins has created an extraordinary unified choral sound in a few short months. Board President Chuck McSorley related “He’s been pulling us with both his head and heart.” In response Caulkins made the point “Many members are living the songs on stage. Some were there. It’s personal. It’s a growing experience for us all.”
I Am Harvey Milk introduces one more talented soloist not seen before intermission. Young Hari Koipallil, playing Milk as a boy, begins the song cycle with bell-tone perfection as he envisions life like an opera. The chorale and Romeo quickly moves to how the opera will end “I Am the Bullet”, an emotional, percussive torrent of sound.
Further down the list of “I Am’s” was an audience favorite, “I Am the Castro”, featuring soloists, select chorus members and the full chorus, in a highly choreographed, hand-clapping, foot-stomping exuberant celebration of what it was like to be totally out in the pre-AIDS world of San Francisco’s gay clubs. The mood turns quickly somber as Nelson, playing Harvey’s mother, asks the question “Was I Wrong?” Her clarion voice never quavering, I heard her talent; but not her commitment to the role.
“Sticks and Stones” sung by the chorus reveals Lippa’s genius for musical wordsmithing. Taking epithets with “I am the faggot” as his baseline, derogatory remarks are treated first as drops of water until they become a waterfall that washes away their negativity.
The emotional heart of the show is “I Am San Francisco” where Harvey finds hope for himself and others as he learns San Francisco, the place, its people, allows him to be who he really is. The chorus sang this number with the quiet reverence of the most “Amazing Grace” one can imagine.
The finale to I Am Harvey Milk starts with the statement “I am Tired of the Silence” and ends with the entire cast repeating “Come Out, Come Out” in a pulsed crescendo led by Romeo that once again brought the audience to its feet.
Milk’s message was simple. Social justice exists only when there is personal integrity.