Paper Mill Show Choir Performs Soon
Hop Aboard The Paper Mill Playhouse Broadway Show Choir Train: Your Window Seat to Beautiful Harmony
by Rich McNanna
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Millburn NJ – I sat in the back of the congregation next to a particularly translucent stained glass window, the bottom of which was purposefully ajar, I suspect, so that a refreshing flow of air could enter the sanctuary on this glorious spring evening; but as Providence often demonstrates, things aren’t always what they seem, and perhaps the crack’s purpose was just as much to send the music out as it was to let the breeze in.
It is probably a stretch to say that a serendipitous April evening of choral music could in any way evoke the rhythm of the steam trains which once puffed their way along the nearby Rahway River over one hundred and fifty years ago.
But to this recent observer of Paper Mill Playhouse’s Broadway Show Choir, the connection is ironclad…albeit in a pliant, harmonious kind of way.
Perhaps this is ambiguous. Please, allow for an explanation.
In the 1850’s, the Morris and Essex Railroad transformed northern New Jersey by directly linking it to New York City; Millburn being a prominent stop on the railroad, the community benefitted like so many other whistle-stops in that the trains provided not only access to the City, but escape from it for the scores of people seeking new opportunities in the place they had no prescience to yet call the “suburbs.” As Millburn’s population slowly swelled, its institutions were enhanced; St. Stephen’s Church on Main Street was no exception.
According a brief history of the church, St. Stephen’s was given the land on which it resides by Israel Condit, the locally agreed-upon Father of Millburn, in the 1850’s. Like a spiritual magnet, it attracted more and more of the newcomers-by-rail and has served the faith community of Millburn and surrounding municipalities ever since.
Fast forward to one month ago.
In keeping with the church’s commitment to the community, St. Stephen’s hosted one of the most dazzling displays of young artist performance this blogger has witnessed in quite some time. The April 24th Paper Mill Playhouse’s Broadway Show Choir Benefit Concert for St. Stephen’s Church was a two-hour showcase of New Jersey’s finest singers and performers aged 16–22; and just as the clamoring steam trains of the past brought the world to Millburn, St. Stephen’s attracted a new crop of talent to its hallowed halls on this occasion: the top young singing talent in the state of New Jersey. But this time, the purpose of this gathering was not to accumulate talent, but to turn right around and share it with the outside world.
The Paper Mill Playhouse Broadway Show Choir, according to Choir Director Shayne Austin Miller, was the brainchild of the Paper Mill Playhouse management team back in 2007. Upon reflection, it was determined that Paper Mill, even for all of its virtues, was an institution which concealed its art. To reconcile this, it was decided Paper Mill should propel its art back out into the community, beyond the confines of the brick-and-mortar theater – and the Broadway Show Choir was created to be a major facet in this effort.
The idea was to provide an opportunity for the wealth of young vocal talent in New Jersey to compete for and participate in the premiere show choir in the state. Committed to excellence at a cost participants could afford – free of charge – the group performs a diverse set of music from pop to Broadway in a triple threat fashion, combining tight vocal harmonies, powerful dynamics, and perfectly synchronized choreography. And in coordination with Paper Mill Playhouse’s award-winning Arts Education Department, the Broadway Show Choir provides “real training,” according to Mr. Miller, in the form of a choral and group dance intensive, and free private voice for each participant.
Originally funded by Paper Mill theater itself, the choir – with Shayne Miller at the helm, and Joshua Schnetzer and Matthew Lowy directing dance and music respectively – quickly garnered a key corporate sponsor in the Overlook Medical Center / Atlantic Health System. This allowed the program to build upon the success of its premiere season and continue its mission of high quality performing arts instruction at no cost to participants.
And it truly is a noble mission. Aside from the opportunities and training from which the choir’s young participants benefit, according to Mr. Miller, it is audiences who profit from the experience as well. For while the Broadway Show Choir has performed at Lincoln Center for the International Show Choir Competition as host choir, performed in front of 30,000 people at Pride Fest in Asbury Park, and collaborated with several other prominent choirs under the joint-tour umbrella called Vocal Ovation Tour, more than half of the choir’s other engagements are fundraisers for other organizations. Galas, benefit races and walks – versatile are the venues this choir finds itself entertaining on a regular basis.
Brian Grimaldi, one of the fine young performers, and Pingry School senior adds in this vein,
“Every time I’m on stage with the choir, it feels nice to give back to the community.”
Now a Public Relations intern with Paper Mill and a committed Franklin and Marshall student next year, Mr. Grimaldi embodies the typical performer in the group: talented, personable, and well-rounded (Mr. Grimaldi) expects to major in both computer science and performing arts). And in speaking with him, his humility was easily seen as he seamlessly deflected all focus to his fellow performers,
“Honestly, the two years I’ve spent with the group have been great – so many talented people, it’s an honor just being a part of it.”
It’s no wonder, then, that St. Stephen’s Church donates its space for all of the group’s rehearsals – young talent exhibiting such positivity and virtue would definitely seem like a worthy cause to foster. And it is with great pleasure, according to Mr. Miller, that the choir is able to return the church’s generosity with benefit concerts exclusively for the financial benefit of the church.
Which calls to mind the St. Stephen’s Church benefit concert last month.
What a time it was.
The set list spanned classic Broadway standards and medleys from Kiss Me Kate and West Side Story to Carousel and The Sound of Music. To juxtapose, the group proved its range with modern hits such as Corinne Bailey Rae’s Put Your Records On to Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. The common thread, however, was a beautiful blend of sound which respected each piece’s genre all the while adding a fresh, new spirit to each song–a feat achieved through the spirited energy bought forth by each ensemble member on the stage.
And while Mr. Miller did acknowledge during the performance that no soloist singers were specifically mentioned by name in the program because of the group’s “ensemble nature,” anyone in attendance being asked to comment upon it would be remiss if he did not mention one standout performer: Mr. P.J. Allen. Mr. Allen provided impeccable beat box percussion to about half of the numbers that added a depth and style which was very noticeable. The capacity crowd in the church responded very noticeably to each song in which he added his unique talent, and many a whisper was overheard at intermission about the “beat box kid” and about how incredible he was.
Remarkably, however, each performer in the Paper Mill Broadway Show Choir brought his or her own contribution to the performance that magical night in April. So much so, that this reviewer highly recommends readers witness the talent of the ensemble for themselves. For while the sounds of the old Morris and Essex steam trains lumbering through the South Mountains may be a thing of the past, the sounds of this new and exciting ensemble are more than attainable to today’s audiences–just ask all the passersby I saw pause and enjoy it through that open stained glass window I sat next to in the back of the church.
Might this blogger recommend that readers consider seeing the Paper Mill Playhouse Broadway Show Choir on Sunday, June 19, 7:30PM at the South Orange Performing Arts Center (SopacNow.org).
Having originally hailed from Newark and a graduate of Seton Hall University, Rich McNanna grew up a stone’s throw from Paper Mill Playhouse in Springfield, NJ. Now a teacher in and resident of Westfield, he and his wife and son experience theater, music, and art with the same vigor as they do baseball. Paper Mill Playhouse is one of their favorite destinations.