On Stage: Maci Miller brings jazz stylings to Uptown!

By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times

Maci Miller

Maci Miller, one of the Delaware Valley’s premier jazz singers, is known for her topflight albums and her spellbinding club dates.

This week, Miller will perform an infrequent theater concert here in Chester County.

On September 21, Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center (226 North High Street, West Chester, www.uptownwestchester.org) will host a concert by Miller and her band.

Miller just released her new album, “NINE,” on August 25 – but it is not her ninth album. The new disc is actually her fifth album – and first post-COVID release.

Why then is the new LP titled “NINE?”

“The album has nine musicians and nine songs,” said Miller, during a phone interview from her home in Bucks County.

Six of the nine tracks were written by Miller and her co-writer/ producer, Aaron Graves, plus she brings new life to Cedar Walton’s “Firm Roots” with beautiful lyrics about life, love, and connection.

The album is stacked with a who’s who of the vibrant Philadelphia jazz scene. Joining Miller and Graves are bassist Mike Boone, living legend Larry McKenna, Victor North, Byron Landham, Leon Jordan, Sr, Josh Orlando, and very special guest Jeremy Pelt, courtesy of High Note.

“I recorded it with Aaron Graves at his studio in Philadelphia,” said Miller. “He co-writes the songs, plays piano and is the producer. There is no guitar which is funny because my last album was a guitar album.

“We began working on the album during the pandemic in the summer of 2021. We just finished it a few months ago and got it mixed by the end of June.

“It’s been the best musical journey of my life. All the musicians have become dear friends.”

In the liner notes for the album, Miller wrote, “In the field of numerology, the number nine is connected to wisdom and experience. The number nine is significant because it’s closely connected with the spirit, with spiritual growth, inner awakening and self-realization.

“It symbolizes a lifetime of learning and is the universal number for love and hope. It represents patience, harmony, friendship, strength and unity.”

That’s why Miller recorded album number five and titled it “NINE.”

“Nine is a special number,” said Miller. “It’s a number about endings and beginnings – about spiritual growth. For me, there was a lot of growth in the past few years.

“The album is really heartfelt. I’m proud of my writing.”

Because of her varied musical background, Miller is equally comfortable singing an Ella Fitzgerald classic like “Lullaby of Birdland,” a standard blues tune, “Moje Zlato” (a Croatian wedding song) or one of her many melodic original compositions.

“I was singing into a hairbrush ever since I was able to talk,” said Miller.

As a young girl, Miller discovered her grandparents’ vast collection of vinyl, and after studying every great artist from Ella to Ellington, she honed her vocal skills and made her debut in local clubs and at special events.

“There were a lot of musicians on my mother’s side,” said Miller. “I had a lot of talented uncles who were writers, producers and sound guys. On my dad’s side, there was the Croatian influence. There was always Croatian music being played.

“When I was growing up, I was always singing in choirs and performing at local shows. When I was 20, I got into dinner theater in Harrisburg. Then I joined a funk band named Smooth – a pop/funk band.”

Miller grew up in the Harrisburg area in a small town called Enhaut (which means “skin” in German) and then graduated from Central Dauphin East High School.

“I was in a lot of bands that did wedding gigs,” said Miller. “Then, I did a lot of modeling and acting when I moved to Philadelphia. I also worked in New York. After a while, I stopped all the other things and focused on music. It was later that I got into jazz.”

Miller has worked with several music greats including trumpeter Steve Jankowski (Nile Rodgers, Chicago), saxophonist Larry McKenna (Woody Herman, Buddy DeFranco), Dean Schneider (music director for Diahann Carroll), Demitrious Pappas (Smokey Robinson’s music director), and the late George Mesterhazy (Shirley Horn).

She has sung in legendary rooms such as the The Jazz Standard and Danny’s Skylight Room in New York City, Ortliebs and Chris’s Jazz Cafe in Philadelphia, Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, and Bally’s, Harrah’s and the Claridge in Atlantic City. Her travels have also taken her to the iconic Bamboo Bar in Bangkok, Thailand for several extended runs.

“Playing at South is special,” said Miller. “I’m definitely excited that my CD release show is there. It’s an intimate space and I’ll be sharing a lot of new music.”

The arrival of a baby girl marked a career shift for Miller.

“I didn’t sing for about eight years so I could focus on being a mom,” said Miller. “A few years ago, my friend David O’Rourke said – you should sing again.

“So, I decided to dip my toe back in and an album came out of it – ‘Round Midnight.’”

On “Round Midnight,” Miller sings 15 favorite standards in an intimate duet format with guitarist David O’Rourke.

“I recorded ‘Round Midnight’ and released it just before the pandemic,” said Miller. “I was four gigs into my comeback and the world shut down.

“So, I got equipment and did my own gigs. I had livestream shows in my backyard throughout the pandemic. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do live shows at different places including here at the farmhouse.”

Miller released her debut album, “A Very Good Night,” in 2001.

“My first album was a big band album,” said Miller. “It was all originals written in ’40s style. My second album, which came out in 2004 was ‘Take A Closer Look.’ It was a pop/jazz fusion album.”

Miller’s third album was written for a very specific audience.

“The third album was ‘Butterfly Moon’,” said Miller. “It was a lullaby album for my baby girl. We adopted her from Thailand. I made the album so she could get used to my voice before we went to Thailand to get her.”

Miller’s other creative endeavors as an actor, model, and spokesperson have afforded her numerous appearances on film (The Sixth Sense), print (Modern Bride, Women’s World Magazine), and television (Law and Order).

Her charitable contributions include a lullaby entitled “Butterfly Moon”, originally composed for her daughter, which she contributed to a CD for The Mercy Center in Bangkok, which gives aid to orphans and children living with HIV.

Now, the focus is on “NINE.”

“On Thursday, I’ll be performing both standards and originals off the new album with my stellar band, consisting of Aaron Graves, Mike Boone, Leon Jordan Sr., and Victor North,” said Miller. “The lovely and talented Sara Phelan will host this Jazz Cocktail Hour concert series at Uptown Knauer Performing Arts Center. You do not want to miss this!”

Video link for Maci Miller – https://youtu.be/H-cVOsmJXPw.

The show on September 21 at Uptown Knauer Performing Arts Center will start at 7:30 p.m. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. for the bar.

Tickets are $40 at the door.

Vonda Shepard

On September 21, City Winery (990 Filbert Street, Philadelphia, www.citywinery.com) will host a modern-day Renaissance woman – Vonda Shepard.

Shepard is an American singer, songwriter, music director, and actress. She is perhaps best known for her starring role as a fictionalized version of herself on the television series “Ally McBeal,” for which she recorded five soundtrack albums as well as the series’ theme song, “Searchin’ My Soul.”

Shepard has released nine studio albums and three live albums. She received a Screen Actors Guild Award as a cast member of “Ally McBeal” in 1999and received a Billboard award for selling the most television soundtrack albums in history.

“The things that I do right now are mostly singer/songwriter and touring,” said Shepard, during a recent phone interview from her home in Santa Monica, California.

“I don’t want to act. It’s not my thing. I might take a cameo for music but that’s about all.”

Shepard married music producer Mitchell Froom in 2004. Froom produced the first three Crowded House albums, which led to more production jobs with Richard Thompson, Los Lobos, American Music Club, Suzanne Vega and Paul McCartney.

His production credits also include albums from The Bangles, Peter Case, The Corrs, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Crowded House, Tim Finn, Indigo Girls, Robin Gibb, Maria McKee, Randy Newman, Pearl Jam, Bonnie Raitt, Ron Sexsmith, The Del Fuegos, and Richard Thompson.

Shepard has sold more than 12 million albums, has won two Golden Globes, two Emmy Awards and two Screen Actors Guild awards. Shepard’s influences, growing up in the 70’s, were those classic singer/songwriters — Elton John, Carol King, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, as well as the soul icons, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan.

A few years back, Shepard had one of the most unexpected and exhilarating experiences of her career — her belated debut as a musical stage actress. Rock & Roll Hall of Fame legend Randy Newman handpicked her to play the part of Martha in his version of “Faust,” which thrilled audiences at New York’s City Center. For her first stage acting role, Shepard earned grand reviews from New York’s tough theater critics.

Shepard’s new album, “Red Light, Green Light,” which was roduced by Froom, reflects her classic, deeply personal introspection.

“It’s been seven years between albums,” said Shepard. “I started writing ‘Red Light, Green Light’ during COVID. It got me back into writing. I was more focused on my son.

“The album was written and recorded during the height of the pandemic. It took a massive amount of discipline to go through this process but the isolation actually lent itself to going deep into the writing.

“With writing, you have to be focused. I didn’t have the time or the space. I still had ideas.

“When COVID was around, I didn’t do anything live. I stayed home. I was pretty disciplined. I found a way to go into the studio five days a week.

“Once you write one or two songs, it becomes easy. The first two are really impossible. Mitchell and I started writing together.

“When I’m writing a song, it starts with the melody. I’m at the piano and it’s gibberish at first. I don’t write lyrics until later.”

“Red Light, Green Light” features energetic tunes and soulful ballads written with purity, joy, and pain, covering themes of unrequited love, the “heartbreaking experience of being a parent,” and the existential crisis that we all experienced during the pandemic, balanced with a touch of hope that all of her songs evoke.

“A lot of the songs are about myself – past relationships that were unsolvable,” said Shepard. “There was a pan demic song – breathe the air I forgot was there. It’s really about wanting to escape.

“I recorded the album at our studio at home. I built the studio here with my band including Jim Hanson, who has been my bass player for 28 years and James Ralston, who has been my guitarist for 22 years.

“I worked on the writing for a year-and-a-half and then spent three months recording.

“After that, I was out touring for many months. I did a lot of touring overseas last October and then the East Coast in January and back to Europe in February. Now, I don’t have another big tour for a year.

“I’ve started writing new material. There’s no reason to stop. In my show now, I’m doing five songs from the new album, a few from Ally McBeal and some other favorites people want to hear.”

Video link for Vonda Shepard – https://youtu.be/62maKUWus8Y.

The show at City Winery on September 21 will start at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $35.

“Into the Woods” is a comedy-driven musical with a cast of crafty and funny characters. It is a little challenging for audiences – until they realize that trying to follow four fairy tales blended together is useless.

“Into the Woods,” which is running now through October 29 at the Candlelight Dinner Theater (2208 Millers Road, Arden, Delaware, 302- 475-2313, www.candlelighttheatredelaware.org), is a musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine.

“Into the Woods,” which became the first Broadway hit of the 2022-2023 season after its sold-out run at New York City Center Encores!, is directed by Lear deBessonet, with music supervision by Rob Berman, and choreography by Lorin Latarro. This production is dedicated to the memory of Stephen Sondheim.

“Into the Woods first premiered on Broadway in 1987, winning three Tony Awards including Best Score and Best Book. It has since been produced throughout the world and was adapted into a major motion picture in 2014.

Following a sold-out New York City Center Encores! run in May 2022, the production transferred to Broadway as a limited engagement beginning July 2022, marking its first time on Broadway in 20 years. Following tremendous critical acclaim and audience demand, it was extended twice and concluded its Broadway run on January 8, 2023.

The cast at the Candlelight features Shawn Weaver as Jack, Anthony Connell as Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince, Dante Brattelli as Baker, Tori Healy as Baker’s Wife, Tina Delano as Little Red Riding Hood, Niambi Fetlow as Witch, John Murphy as Rapunzel’s Prince, Sam Nagel as Narrator and Mystery Man, Neena Boyle as Jack’s Mother, Erin Lunde as Sleeping Beauty, Anne Bragg as Cinderella, Kendyll Young as Rapunzel and Sarah Mackus and Samantha Ricchiuti alternating as Snow White.

The creative team for “Into the Woods” includes Peter Reynolds (Director), Jeff Reim (Scenic Design), Timothy Lamont Cannon (Costume Design), Dylan Cole (Choreographer), Matthew J. Kator (Lighting Design), Clayton Stacey (Hair, Wigs & Makeup Design), Han Cai (Music Director), Cody Palmer (Production Stage Manager) and Anthony Connell (Props Master).

The musical intertwines the plots of several Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales, exploring the consequences of the characters’ wishes and quests. The main characters are taken from “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel,” “Cinderella” and several others.

The musical “Into the Woods” debuted in San Diego at the Old Globe Theatre in 1986 and premiered on Broadway on November 5, 1987, where it won several Tony Awards, including Best Score, Best Book, and Best Actress in a Musical in a year dominated by “The Phantom of the Opera” (1988).

The musical has since been produced many times, with a 1988 US national tour, a 1990 West End production, a 1997 tenth anniversary concert, a 2002 Broadway revival, a 2010 London revival, and in 2012 as part of New York City’s outdoor Shakespeare in the Park series.

James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim take everyone’s favorite storybook characters and bring them together for a timeless, yet relevant, piece… and a rare modern classic. The Tony Award-winning book and score are both enchanting and touching.

“This show takes you on a journey with these characters,” said Weaver, during a phone interview Tuesday from his home in Claymont, Delaware.

“Most of the core players get their moments of reflection or a realization. You see the characters’ development – how they deal with stress and anxiety.”

Weaver, an Upper Darby High alumnus, spent his college years in Chester County and graduated from Lincoln University in 2016 as a vocal performance major. He is an active actor, voice coach and director.

His stage experience includes “In the Heights” at the Broadway Pitman Theater, “Godspell” and “Rent” at Swarthmore Players and “Something Rotten.”

He has also performed in a show at the Candlelight Theater but has no experience with “Into the Woods.”

“I was in ‘Mamma Mia!’ at the Candlelight in 2022,” said Weaver. “From Day One, I was already hooked on the Candlelight. The place has great energy. I loved the people – including Maryanne (Buffet Manager Maryanne Van Neerden). She used to give me a piece of cheesecake before every show and that got me ready to perform.

“Prior to this, I didn’t know much about ‘Into the Woods.’ I had never seen it, but I did know a decent portion of the songs.

“When I got the role, I did research and that helped me create my own character. I didn’t want it to be off someone else.”

Jack’s role deals with his relationship with a special white cow he owned – a cow named Milky Way.

“I built a good bond with Milky Way,” said Weaver. “It didn’t take much. I wanted my Jack to be a little older and still have a childish nature. I have cats at home and Milky Way is another pet. It’s just a cow.

“I like Jack. I like how pretty much straightforward Jack is with his feelings. He’s not afraid to love a cow. He’s very honest.”

The story of “Into the Woods” follows a Baker and his wife, who wish to have a child; Cinderella, who wishes to attend the King’s Festival; and Jack, who wishes his cow would give milk. When the Baker and his wife learn that they cannot have a child because of a Witch’s curse, the two set off on a journey to break the curse.

Everyone’s wish is granted, but the consequences of their actions return to haunt them later with disastrous results. “Into the Woods” is a musically sophisticated show with the opportunity to feature actors who are adept at dark comedy.

“Into the Woods” is running now through October 29 at the Candlelight Theater with shows on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday matinees.

Tickets, which include a buffet meal, beverages, dessert, and free parking, are $71.50 for adults and $33 for children.

The Candlelight Theatre shifts gears one night a month from theater to comedy.

In addition to performances this weekend from Friday through Sunday of its mainstage production, “Into the Woods,” the Candlelight Theatre will also host its monthly edition of Candlelight Comedy Club on September 21.

The show will feature Justin Gonzalez, Jon Fisch and Randi Lupo.

Gonzalez, who is the glue that holds it all together, is a stand-up comedian and magician. He is also an independent musician based in Philadelphia who travels throughout the Tri-State area and beyond.

Gonzalez, who began performing professionally at the age of 11, now performs with a repertoire that includes classical, big band, Broadway and opera. Most recently, he added a new genre when he assumed the role of lead vocalist for “33 1/3 LIVE’s Killer Queen Experience.”

“I’m originally from Northeast Philly,” said Gonzalez. “I went to school in South Philly at GAMP.”

The Girard Academic Music Program (GAMP) is a college preparatory school for students in grades 5 through 12 that provides a unique educational environment, focusing on college and career readiness, while allowing all students to pursue music as a major subject.

“I was at GAMP for eight years,” said Gonzalez. “I studied voice and instruments starting with lower brass. Voice was a large chunk of it. I got my first professional performance in Europe.”

At the age of 13, Gonzalez was asked to join a chorus as a soloist on its two-week tour of Germany and France. On that trip, he had the opportunity to perform in many castles, mansions, and historic houses of worship. The most memorable moment for him was singing in the Cathedral Notre Dame in Paris, France.

“It was amazing,” said Gonzalez. “I was 13 and I was singing at the Cathedral Notre Dame. I was just a poor Puerto Rican kid from North Philly, and I was singing in places like a castle in Germany and a cathedral in Berlin.”

After years of laying the groundwork for a promising career as an opera singer, Gonzalez was diagnosed at the age of 18 with Multiple Sclerosis, an autoimmune disease. One of the symptoms of MS is memory loss. His opera career was over just as quickly as it began.

“It affected my brain’s ability to memorize,” said Gonzalez. “I still sing classically at venues around the East Coast and on Broadway.”

Today, 20 years since that first tour, Gonzalez is still a sought-after classical music soloist. He is also a practitioner of the American Song Book and the music of Broadway. He uses all of this music to entertain, educate, and share his story.

“I also have several music projects,” said Gonzalez. “There is the Little Big Band Lounge Revival, which does lounge and popular standards along with classic love songs, and the Justin Gonzalez Jazz Trio, which is a pop trio that uses classical instruments. There is also ‘33 1/3 LIVE’s Killer Queen Experience.’”

The comedy aspect is the most recent.

“About eight years ago, I was doing a weekly cabaret show with Julia Scotti – ‘Julia Scotti’s Comedy Test Kitchen,’” said Gonzalez. “She said I should tell my stories when performing. That allowed me to just be funny.”

Video link for Justin Gonzalez — https://youtu.be/kNtcF4Z5aqQ.

Fisch is one of only a handful of comedians who appeared on both The Late Show with David Letterman and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. He was the host of the widely popular podcast “In the Tank.” With his current podcast “Spiraling Up,” Fisch talks with people from the comedy world about handling daily struggles and digging themselves out of life’s major ruts.

In 2021 he released “Hinged,” which was recorded live at Gotham Comedy Club and available on YouTube. Fisch has performed at multiple comedy festivals including the HBO Comedy Arts Festival, the Great American Comedy Festival and Montreal’s prestigious “Just for Laughs” Festival. Based in New York City, Fisch can be seen regularly at the Comedy Cellar and Gotham Comedy Club.

Video link for Jon Fisch — https://youtu.be/SMCIrwLpyqk.

Lupo uses observations of everyday people and her experience as a foundation for her stage personality. She believes laughter is healing. She’s so busy telling you about her own troubles that you’ll forget about yours.

Lupo has performed throughout the Greater New York area in clubs such as Comix at Foxwoods, The New York Comedy Club, Gotham Comedy Club, Broadway Comedy Club, The Metropolitan Room and Catch A Rising Star – Princeton. She produces and hosts her own monthly show at Pats Place in Nutley, New Jersey. Her inspirations are Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, Gilda Radner, Jackie Mason, Eddie Murphy, Judy Tenuta, Jessica Kirson, Maureen Langan, and Pink.

Video link for Randi Lupo — https://youtu.be/gwQ6nH8cu-o.

The show at the Candlelight Theater will start at 7:30 p.m. on September 21. Tickets, which are $30, include complimentary light fare and free parking. Cash bar available with no minimum.
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