Arts

Review: MUSE/IQUE’s ‘Really Big Show’ Reflects on Inclusivity of Acts on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’

"The Ed Sullivan Show," particularly its positive impact on America -- through the diversity of its musical artists -- was celebrated by MUSE/IQUE in "Really Big Show: How Ed Sullivan Changed America Every Sunday Night" on Wednesday, May 1st at The Huntington. Photo credit: The Official Site of "The Ed Sullivan Show"

The following review is based on the Wednesday, May 1st performance of MUSE/IQUE’s Really Big Show: How Ed Sullivan Changed America Every Sunday Night at the Huntington Library.

On the evening of Wednesday, May 1st, Artistic and Music Director Rachael Worby, with a cavalcade of expert musicians surrounding her on an outdoor stage, led an educational and entertaining presentation of MUSE/IQUE’s Really Big Show: How Ed Sullivan Changed America Every Sunday Night on the lawn of The Huntington between the famed library and art museum. For nearly two hours, Worby, who is as articulate a speaker as she is a conductor, took the microphone to share vignettes that were seamlessly interwoven with the various performances comprising the concert.

The theme was Ed Sullivan and his game-changing The Ed Sullivan Show, which, over 24 seasons and 1,068 episodes, became the “most important show in the history of TV,” according to Worby. Based on the very true accounts she shared — emphasized by clips and photos projected onto a considerable screen — an excellent case was indeed made for such a claim.

Vocalist Ayo Awosika sung a collection of historically important songs in MUSE/IQUE’s Really Big Show: How Ed Sullivan Changed America Every Sunday Night on Wednesday, May 1st at The Huntington. Photo courtesy of the artist

In an era when it would be easy to exclude or be intolerant, Sullivan was anything but, inviting a diverse range of artists to reach as many patrons as possible, a philosophy echoed by the membership-driven MUSE/IQUE. “[The Ed Sullivan Show] reflected who we were — of all ages, races, national origins, and social classes. We saw ourselves in those television sets,” stated Worby, who is also the founder of MUSE/IQUE.

Because Sullivan didn’t discriminate — assigning an exemplary skill level as the only criterion — there was always something for everyone. Guests like Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Ink Spots, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey, Duke Ellington, the Moiseyev Ballet, Robert Merrill and the cast of Carmen, Itzhak Perlman, Ray Charles, the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Muppets, Henry Mancini, the Temptations, Supremes, and more, regaled millions on Sullivan’s New York stage — sometimes multiple times over.

Bringing the MUSE/IQUE-marshaled musical trip down memory lane to life were vocalists Ayo Awosika, Chris Pierce, and Craig Colclough, along with violinist Dominic An, tenor saxophonist Pat Posey, Los Angeles Ballet dancers Lilly Fife and Jake Ray, the DC6 Singers Collective, and, last but not least, the orchestra. Responsible for the introductions, transitions, and overall direction was, of course, Worby, who ensured that no cues were missed.

Vocalist and harmonicist Chris Pierce performed several numbers as one of the spotlighted artists in MUSE/IQUE’s Really Big Show: How Ed Sullivan Changed American Every Sunday Night on Wednesday, May 1st at The Huntington. Photo courtesy of the artist

Featured front and center were the first-rate Awosika and Pierce who vibrantly paid homage to the Beatles with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” — the opening number — before Pierce some time later rousingly honored both the Liverpool group and Ray Charles, who, at one point on The Ed Sullivan Show, performed his own bluesy, mostly a cappella rendition of “Yesterday.” Intermittently riffing on the harmonica, Pierce channeled Charles, dazzling the crowd with his soulful playing and voice, which was handsomely filled with evocative rasp and grit.

Moreover, in a poignant moment, Pierce melodically tipped his cowboy hat to the Ink Spots with “The Best Things in Life are Free.” The African American quartet, technically the first-ever performers on live TV, were the subjects of a successful moving-image broadcast experiment in 1936 between the top floors of the RCA and Empire State Buildings in New York City; not to mention, the Ink Spots were featured on the second overall episode of The Ed Sullivan Show.

Celebrating Davis Jr. and Fitzgerald’s appearance on Sullivan’s telecast were also Awosika and Pierce who delighted the audience with George Gershwin’s “’S Wonderful.” The fantastic duo of Awosika and Pierce, furthermore, sang the Temptations’ “Get Ready” and the Supremes’ “Stop! In the Name of Love,” respectively, just like the two groups sang each other’s hits when they appeared on the iconic Sunday broadcast. During spirited pieces like these, the DC6 Singers Collective consistently added vocal ballast with their smooth harmonies, augmenting the celebratory groove of the occasion even more.

The DC6 Singers Collective contributed additional vocal support and harmonies in MUSE/IQUE’s Really Big Show: How Ed Sullivan Changed America Every Sunday Night on Wednesday, May 1st at The Huntington. Photo courtesy of the ensemble

Impressing with her share of solo showings, Awosika soared with “Before the Parade Passes By” from Hello Dolly! — the significance being that Pearl Bailey and an all-African American cast of the musical were once afforded by Sullivan the unequaled opportunity to wow America during the civil rights era. Awosika further ingratiated herself to observers with a beautifully lilting rendition of “It’s Not Easy Being Green” — a veritable love letter to Kermit, Jim Henson, and the Muppets.

Earning an immediate standing ovation following his otherworldly exhibition of wares was virtuoso Dominic An, a 14-year-old student of the Colburn School, who musically conquered Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto — the same piece that won over Sullivan when he, in the midst of holding a talent contest in Israel, was taken by Itzhak Perlman’s precocious playing. Live music is particularly appreciated when the talent is undeniable; An’s precision even amid a formidable tempo, and the confidence with which he did Mendelssohn’s masterpiece justice, was doubtlessly a highlight.

In a reminder of how unprecedented it was for Sullivan to have the Moiseyev Ballet on his program during the Cold War, dancers Fife and Ray glided across the stage all the while Posey, a sublime instrumentalist in his own right, passionately soloed on his saxophone in “Prelude to a Kiss” by Duke Ellington, who appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show eight times. Posey realized the sweetness of Ellington’s tune while sprinkling in some jazzy flair of his own.

Dominic An, a 14-year-old prodigy on the violin, displayed his talents in MUSE/IQUE’s Really Big Show: How Ed Sullivan Changed America Every Sunday Night on Wednesday, May 1st at The Huntington. Photo courtesy of the artist

Certainly, not to be overlooked is bass-baritone Craig Colclough, who, over the last year, earned plaudits for his charismatic turns in LA Opera’s productions of The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. The opera leading man paid tribute to the “Toreador Song” of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, which was performed by Merrill and his Met co-stars on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967. With nary a missed note, and a voice that packs the power of a cannon but the grace of a swan, Colclough’s immersion-conducive expressiveness almost materialized a bull-fighting ring.

The musical connection to Sullivan with even more resonance is Rodgers and Hammerstein whose songs were featured a whopping 81 times on the weekly Sunday extravaganza. Sullivan’s affinity for the legendary team, who finished writing South Pacific not more than one year following the debut of The Ed Sullivan Show in 1948, was no secret. Colclough similarly enthralled with his abundant timbre during “Some Enchanted Evening,” but it was the conclusion of the festivities, namely “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel, which brought the theme of Sullivan’s aim to unite his distinct guests and viewers back full circle.

Opera star Craig Colclough was among a group of skilled performers in MUSE/IQUE’s Really Big Show: How Ed Sullivan Changed America Every Sunday Night on Wednesday, May 1st at The Huntington. Photo courtesy of the artist

There is nothing more worthwhile than the “things which connect rather than separate us,” affirmed Worby, as the attendees, who were no longer seated, stood in unison to sing the chorus of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” — not unlike those in attendance at the Hollywood Bowl for an Ed Sullivan special on August 16, 1959. History has proven that The Ed Sullivan Show is a near quarter-century time capsule to be proud of, and a reminder that people of all walks of life can co-exist while simultaneously sharing in the transformative might of music and art.

There is one more performance of MUSE/IQUE’s Really Big Show: How Ed Sullivan Changed America Every Sunday Night: on Sunday, May 5th at the Skirball Cultural Center. For more information about the production, visit muse-ique.com.

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