Come Celebrate the Music of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Laura Nyro This Friday at Lakewood’s Strand Theatre!

By Spotlight Central.

(LAKEWOOD, NJ) — After selling out theaters from NY to LA, Back to the Garden comes to The Strand Theatre in Lakewood, NJ, this Friday, September 23, at 8:00pm. The show celebrates folk-rock trailblazers Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Laura Nyro and honors these prolific women, their influence, and inspiration with a evening of songs created by these well-known singer-songwriters which were made famous both by them and by other world-class recording artists.

The evening boasts the talents of Melissa Hammans (Company, Smokey Joe’s Cafe), Shaleah Adkisson (Hair, Rent), and Maddy Wyatt (Band of Wyatt). Directed by Amy Jones (Good Ol’ Girls, Broadway Backwards), with Music Direction by Debra Barsha (Jersey Boys), the band is led by Sue Terwilliger (HBO’s The Sopranos).

Back to the Garden is a presentation of Soul Picnic Productions, a nostalgia-based concert production company founded by Melissa Hammans, a Nashville-based singer, actress, teacher, and producer, who also appears in the production.

Spotlight Central recently had a chance to chat with Ms. Hammans, who talked about her inspiration to create Back to the Garden, her personal connection to the legendary female singer-songwriters celebrated in the show, and her favorite songs written by the songwriting trio of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Laura Nyro.

Spotlight Central: Why did you decide to create a show focusing on the music of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Laura Nyro?

Melissa Hammans: Without Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Laura Nyro, it wouldn’t even occur to me — as a woman — to stand on stage and sing! They were — absolutely — pioneers for women in the music industry and they created their own opportunities to share their music and inspired a lot of women — myself included — to take a leap of faith and put ourselves ‘out there.’

SC: What should concert-goers expect to see and hear in Back to the Garden?

MH: No doubt, they will recall memories of when they first heard some of these songs. One of my favorite parts about doing this show is interacting with the audience afterwards and them sharing their memories with me like “I remember sitting with my girlfriends in my college dorm room listening to Joni Mitchell’s Blue album,” or “When I broke up with my boyfriend, I played Carole King’s Tapestry.” And the same goes for Laura Nyro and albums like New York Tendeberry.

So they can expect a lot of the hits that were made famous by other artists — for example, “Stoney End” was made famous by Barbra Streisand, and “Both Sides Now” came onto the scene with Judy Collins. And they can also expect to have a very good time where they can re-experience memories of that music when it first came around and they’ll no doubt be taken back.

The audiences inevitably dance and sing along and I’ve seen, over the years I’ve been doing this show, the Kleenex’s coming out, too. So audiences can expect to run the gamut of emotions. All in all, it’s a really beautiful evening, one we’re all very proud to be a part of, and we’re very excited to be bringing it to the Jersey Shore.

SC: What are your personal favorite Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Laura Nyro songs?

MH: I often say that picking my favorite songs would be like picking a favorite kid, but I do think that I have so much love for the music of all three of these women. I really really love “A Case of You.” I love “Both Sides Now.” I’ve been listening to “Both Sides Now” since I was a kid at summer camp, which thought was a camp song; I had no idea it was sung and written by Joni Mitchell and the impact it would have on my adult life.

And during the show, we do Laura Nyro songs like “Stoney End” — we have such a ball doing that —and “Sweet Blindness” and “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle.” One song that’s not in the show that I love from Laura Nyro’s catalog, however, is “To a Child”; I think it’s such a beautiful song. So with this show, we’ve really had to trim down our set list — otherwise, we’d be there all weekend!

And Carole King… my gosh. Anytime I hear “You’ve Got a Friend,” my heart grows about ten sizes; it’s so good. And I really love “Way Over Yonder,” which always makes me put my hand on my heart, and I love singing “It’s Too Late.” And let me just say that hearing Shaleah Addison sing “Natural Woman” in the show is something you’ll never want to miss. It is a stunning moment and I get to share the stage with such phenomenal talent. Boy, do she and Maddy Wyatt make me look good!

SC: So how did you become familiar with the music of Carole, Joni, and Laura?

MH: Since I was a little girl I was just drawn to people — and women in particular — who use their voices. And I have really strong women in my family and I’ve been fortunate to have really strong role models, but I also grew up in the Midwest and it was an interesting dynamic to have this voice as a Midwestern female, wondering, “Is it ok to use this?”

When I started singing, I learned how to sing Carole King’s music, and when I was in high school, I remember performing the Three Dog Night version of Laura Nyro’s “Eli’s Comin’” with my show choir and I thought “This is so good!” And then, in college, I remember listening to Joni Mitchells’ Blue, so it’s really spanned my entire life — I guess I can’t think of a time when I have not listened to this music. And, obviously, working on this show for the past eight years I’ve gotten a chance to go much deeper with the material and it’s surely changed my life.

SC: Have you ever seen any of the three women perform live or meet any of them?

MH: I saw Carole King perform at Madison Square Garden with James Taylor. I think I’m still in shock over that — and that was a number of years ago; it was one of the most incredible experiences, musically, I’ve ever witnessed — such friendship and collaboration. I don’t know what I would do if I ever met Joni Mitchell. She’s been somewhat of a recluse and has had some serious health issues over the years. And with Laura Nyro, we lost her far too soon. But I have had the great privilege of befriending members of her family — her late father, Lou, and her brother, Jan, and his family — and they have been really supportive of the show. Jan came on stage and performed with us a handful of times and that was a dream come true. And Lou came to see Back to the Garden less than a year before he died and it was truly one of the markers of my life, and Jan even came back the next year and spoke to the audience about the impact his dad felt hearing his daughter’s music again.

SC: These days, it seems more people are much more familiar with the work of Carole King and Joni Mitchell and less so with Laura Nyro. Why do you think that is?

MH: Well, I think Laura just maintained a much lower profile. I don’t know if this is going to be a terrible analogy, but if you’re ranging from ‘very popular’ to ‘more obscure,’ it would go: Carole, Joni, Laura. And Carole is the ‘hitmaker.’ Joni is the ‘artist turned folksinger,’ and Laura is the ‘raven-haired, long-skirted, velvety girl who’s sort of sitting in the corner with all the intrigue.’ And, also, I think one has to go very deep with her music — it’s kind of scary sometimes — and the same thing with Joni Mitchell — but I just think she’s more off the beaten path. But what I’ve found from doing this show over the past couple of years is that the Laura fans are tried and true. They’ve been there since the beginning.

SC: Is there anything else you’d like to say to those who are interested in attending Back to the Garden at The Strand on Friday night?

MH: Get your tickets! Call your friends, and bring them! You’ll no doubt have a stellar evening of great music and incredible talent. You’ll be jumping out of your seat dancing and you’ll be recalling memories and making new ones, as well. It really is a special show — and obviously I’m biased because I’m a part of it — but I’ve been so lucky over the years to have people coming up after the show saying, “Oh, I’m so glad I came!” And we’ve had the good fortune to play on both coasts and so many places in between and the audience has a wonderful time — and we have a wonderful time — and we spend the night celebrating these prolific singer-songwriters who showed all of us — especially woman — that it’s ok to be who we are and use our voices to talk about love in a very brave way.

In addition to Hamman — along with her castmates, Shaleah Adkisson and Maddy Wyatt, and her band — Emily Grove, a popular New Jersey singer-songwriter who recently sold-out Tim McLoone’s Supper Club in Asbury Park with a stunning tribute to Joni Mitchell, will also appear at The Strand, reviving a selection of songs from that show as an opening set preceding Back to the Garden.

General admission tickets for Back to the Garden are $20 (plus $5 fee) and can be ordered at strand.org or purchased at the door. The Strand is located at 400 Clifton Avenue in Lakewood, NJ.

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