Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Sheri Sanders Blows the Roof Off the Joint - "Sheri Sanders: In Concert"

By Rob Hartmann

Part rock concert, part master class, part interactive exploration of pop music history, and part autobiography-confessional, Sheri Sanders: In Concert is a theatrical experience unlike any other.

Sheri Sanders is currently best known for her long running series of classes, “Rock the Audition” (which later became a book and DVD), in which she gives musical theater actors the tools to fully engage with pop and rock music – music which can be intimidating and mystifying to performers raised on show tunes.

Sanders, along with director Joe Barros and musical director Meg Zervoulis, created an evening which gives three dimensional life to her credo: that rock and pop songs are inextricably entwined with the social history of their time – but that performers today can connect with them as still-living, still-relevant personal expressions.

Each performance of the concert featured a different opening act: Todd Almond, (, Bobby Cronin ( Joe Iconis (, Michael Mott (, Brad Simmons and Paul Oakley Stovall, Katie Thompson ( and, at this performance, Max Vernon (

Max Vernon, accompanying himself at the piano, began with a wry song that drew on his days as a young fixture on the fashion-punk-party scene: “Lower East Side Angry Face.” His set included two moving numbers from his new musical, The View UpStairs, inspired by the horrific 1973 arson attack on a gay club in New Orleans.

Sanders is a tasty explosion of fizzy giddiness as she charges onto the stage. The simple setting pays respect to both the past and the future: downstage is a portable record player and a collection of LPs; stage right is a flat-screen where images of pop music icons float by.

Sanders immediately takes the audience in hand as she unrolls the tale of her journey from performer to teacher and mentor. After early career success, she fell prey to vicious self-sabotage. In order to take the pressure off herself, she decided to put the focus on others: she would step back from the intensity of high-stakes auditions, and teach what she had learned.

Sanders immersed herself in studying pop music history hand in hand with cultural history, specifically from a performer’s point of view.  She developed a course (at one point she displays the very first flyer she ever posted, complete with rainbow background) which eventually grew into “Rock the Audition.”

She segues effortlessly into a brief survey pop music history, shifting into song to demonstrate points – dipping into the blues tune “Come Back, Baby” and later Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, as covered by Judy Collins.

Sanders is a consummate performer, able to shift emotional gears and fully inhabit any style of music with complete conviction and authenticity.  After completely mesmerizing the audience on her own, she takes the spotlight off herself, and transforms the proceedings briefly into a master class. Two different students took part each night of the concert; at this performance, they were Elijah Caldwell and Jessica Norland. Sanders first worked with Caldwell on his rendition of Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1979 hit “Boogie Wonderland”; in minutes she had him loosened up and fully embracing the spirit of the 70s with a full-on disco falsetto.

Norland’s song was Heart’s 1985 “Nothin’ At All.” At first, Norland gave a completely credible, straightforward rendition of the song, in a clear, strong voice. With quick, intuitive coaching from Sanders, Norland completely transformed her voice and physicality: a new power, strength, and confidence, completely emanating from the music.

Much credit must be given to music director Zervoulis, who coaxed sounds of every decade from the piano. Playing rock music convincingly at a solo piano is extremely difficult; the genre is built for guitars and drums. Zervoulis breathed along with Sanders and the student singers, while keeping a rock-steady rhythmic drive.

After watching Sanders in action as a master teacher, we resume the story of her journey: landing a book deal by cold calling the music publisher Hal Leonard. (The book and accompanying DVD were reviewed on this site here:

In a dizzying montage, we see Sanders come smack up against a grim truth of the entertainment industry: in the end, so many of the people employed to help  – publishers, PR reps, agents – do very little. The artist is on her own.

This is a point where many one-person shows would stop, content to sigh or sneer at the cynical realities of “the business.” Sanders moves through it, in a moving, deeply felt exploration of “The Great Escape”, written by Pink and Dan Wilson.

I’m the king of the great escape
You’re not going to watch me checkin’ out of this place
You’re not going to lose me, cause the passion and pain
Are going to keep us alive someday
Yeah the passion and the pain
Are going to keep us alive, someday

Sanders understands that the artist’s journey is equal parts passion and pain: they are inescapably bound to each other. She recognizes it in her own life’s story, and in the stories of the pop and rock artists whom she honors.

The evening was subtly and fluidly directed by Joe Barros, who keeps the narrative thread moving through each shift of format. Holly Long contributes skillful lighting design which moves effortlessly from intense, deep tones during the performances, to bright clarity when Sanders chats with the audience.

The innovative producers of the event were Kenny Metzger and Kristin Morris, operating under the auspices of the Araca Project, which seeks to mentor up and coming producers.

Sheri Sanders In Concert concluded its limited run in New York on October 2nd, but will tour in conjunction with Sanders schedule teaching master classes at colleges, universities and theaters across the country. If you have the opportunity to see Sheri Sanders work her alchemic magic of performance and transformative teaching in person, do not miss it. In days past, Broadway shows or television series would be built around Sheri Sanders and her extravagant hug-you-madly personality: we can only hope that the industry will take note and bring us more Sheri Sanders, pronto.

Sheri Sanders: In Concert. September 25 РOctober 2, The American Theatre of Actors, 314 W. 54th Street. Produced by Kenny Metzger and Kristin Morris, KMM Productions, LLC. Conceived by Sheri Sanders. Directed by Joe Barros. Musical direction by Meg Zervoulis. Lighting design by Holly Long. Sound design by Andy Sowers. Casting by Kitay-Witt Casting. Stage manager, Tiffany de Bruyn. Assistant director, Aim̩e Cucchiaro.

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