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Singing with spirit 

Ella Fitzgerald , Kirk Franklin, 'Passion," Bluebirders.

Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
Robinson Center Music Hall
May 19

The spirits of two late, great jazz legends were clearly present at the Robinson Center Music Hall during Friday’s performance by trumpeter Bryon Stripling and singer Patti Austin.

Ably accompanied by the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Stripling and Austin treated the audience to a memorable “Tribute to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.” The two started the evening off with a sassy, dazzling and flirtatious duet of Armstrong’s “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You.”

After the duet, Stripling — a decent singer, but a superb trumpet player — took the audience down memory lane with a string of Armstrong, hits, including “Tiger Rag” and “Do You Know What It Means,” and showcased additional Armstrong songs in his “New Orleans Medley” and “Louis Armstrong Tribute” numbers. Stripling’s performance was enhanced by Claudia Burson on piano, Joe Vick on bass and Robert Breithaupt on drums.

The most moving moments came when Stripling played “Do You Know What It Means” and What A Wonderful World,” both of which reveal the true heart and soul of New Orleans native Armstrong.

Austin, assisted by Mike Rashootie on piano, Jeff Carney on bass and Mark McLean on drums, brought Fitzgerald back to life with such songs as “Too Close for Comfort,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Paganini,” “Our Love is Here to Stay,” “A Tisket A Tasket,” “Miss Otis Regrets,” “Hard Hearted Hannah,” “But Not for Me,” “Satin Doll,” “The Man I Love,” and “How High the Moon.” She also saluted Fitzgerald with “Hearing Ella Sing.”

Austin captivated the audience with her scatting, for which Fitzgerald was famous. And she skillfully conveyed the disappointment of Fitzgerald’s personal love life with “Miss Otis Regrets,” a song about a woman who shot and killed the lover who scorned her; and “Hard-Hearted Hannah,” about a woman who has been hurt too many times by men.

Nearly as entertaining as her singing was Austin’s personal, often comical monologues between songs.

— Renarda Williams



Lifting everyone

Kirk Franklin
Riverfest Amphitheatre
May 20

Kirk Franklin’s spiritually energetic performance inspired the young and old at the Riverfest Amphitheatre on Saturday. Franklin went down memory lane with songs (from previous CDs) such as: “Melodies from Heaven” and “Gonna Be a Lovely Day” (a remake of Bill Withers’ song).

Franklin, perhaps the biggest young name in contemporary gospel music today, delivered a strong message to the young audience with his new hit “Shout” (which samples a “Tears for Fears” song). The song is the testimony of a young man whose trials and tribulations have allowed God to come into his life.

— Renarda Williams



Actors show ‘Passion’


‘Passion’
Weekend Theater
May 21

Little Rock amateur theater probably doesn’t get any better than the Weekend Theater’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion,” which opened last week. Splendid, rangy voices of Sarah Bragg and Kathryn Pryor and the husky baritone of John Haman deliver Sondheim’s difficult music well and are a hit in the acting department as well as in this two-act Tony Award-winning play.

But, besides the fine performance of the leads, the supporting cast lends a fine hand, excelling in the highly moving second act as background chorus. Andy Hall’s direction is outstanding as well, as he guides the actors seamlessly through each scene, and keeping a handle so that a play with so much emotion doesn’t become overwrought.

The musical, set in the 1860s in Italy, opens with a steamy scene involving Haman as Giorgio, an army captain, and Bragg as Clara, who we later learn is married to someone else we never meet. Giorgio is sent to an Italian encampment, where he meets Fosca (Pryor), the niece of the colonel in command (John C. Thompson). She’s a tortured soul and sickly, and misinterprets Giorgio’s friendliness as more.

If you’re looking for one of those toe-tapping Broadway musicals with recognizable songs, this isn’t it. Sondheim’s work here is operatic. Regular Weekenders may know what to expect from Haman and Pryor, as well as several supporting actors who regularly grace this stage. Bragg, a revelation in the recent “Undraped” (written by Haman), here is a wonder.

— Jim Harris



Welcome return


‘The Bluebird Cafe’
Old State House Museum
May 18

I’m sure I’d heard it mentioned before, and probably seen the name linked with the song in print, but until last Thursday I never associated native Arkansan Donny Lowery with the Alabama hit song “Old Flame.” As Lowery told an audience in the packed “Big House” upstairs in the Old State House Museum, he toiled in Nashville trying to write a hit song, landed “Old Flame,” which he co-wrote with Mac McAnally, on an Alabama album that sold 12 million copies, and “now I live on a lake.”

Lowery was among five native Arkansans who moved to Nashville to pen songs and came back Thursday to play several of those for an on-the-road version of The Bluebird Cafe. That hangout is where you’ll find many of Nashville’s best songwriters and performers playing. The Old State House and the Bluebird put on a show like this two years ago at the old Union Train Station.

This one seemed more intimate, the acoustics were great, and the crowd loved every minute of it. Four of the performers — Shawn Camp, Steve Dean, Mark Alan Springer and Wood Newton — were part of the show two years ago, while Lowery was a newcomer. And, while they are best known as songwriters, they all could play and sing quite well. Camp showed he could pick his guitar with the best on “Sis Draper,” a song I heard Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder play to perfection in concert a while back. Camp about brought the house down with his solo version. Springer’s voice was superb and almost made us weepy on “Bigger than the Ball,” about an influential coach. Dean and Newton both have a storytelling knack that keeps the audience entranced, with Newton’s “Riding with Private Malone” again hitting at the heartstrings.

— Jim Harris

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