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MPAC’s 25th Anniversary Gala LIVE! Starring Katharine McPhee

By Spotlight Central. Photos by Love Imagery

There’s a buzz of excitement on the plaza outside Morristown, NJ’s MPAC this Friday, September 13, 2019 as the nationally-recognized theater celebrates its 25th anniversary with a 25th Anniversary Gala starring singer/actress Katharine McPhee.

The MPAC exterior is illuminated with purple lights, and white luminaries dot the plaza’s flower beds as singer/guitarist Megan Chappius performs tunes like The Classics IV’s “Spooky” and The Turtles’ “Happy Together” live on the plaza for patrons who mingle as they enjoy the music along with the cool summer breeze.

Inside the gorgeous MPAC facility we chat with GM Ed Kirchdoerffer who tells us about the history of MPAC when he says, “It was originally built in 1937 as a movie house, but closed in the 1980s. Even though there was dust knee high and mushrooms growing in the aisles inside the auditorium, volunteers saved it from demolition.”

Continuing, “In September, 1994, the theater reopened as a concert venue with a very modest schedule — about ten shows,” Kirchdoerffer reveals, “After a quarter century, our line-up has has grown to over 200 shows this season, and over 240,000 people will benefit from our performances which take place both here in our main venue, as well as in other locations throughout the community.”

Recalls Kirchdoerffer, “Some of our other anniversary galas have featured artists such as Diana Ross, Vanessa Williams, Sutton Foster, and Tony Bennett, and tonight we’re very pleased to present Katharine McPhee.”

According to Kirchdoerffer, McPhee — the singer/actress who made a name for herself as the runner-up on Season 5 of American Idol, before starring on such other TV shows as Smash and Scorpion and in Waitress on Broadway — “joins a 25th Anniversary line-up which includes a wide variety of artists from Kenny G to Gladys Knight to such unique programs as a discussion with William Shatner following a screening of the film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn.”

We enter the beautiful MPAC auditorium where a large number “25” is projected on either side of the theater, and a screen center stage greets the audience with a slideshow detailing the mission and history of The Mayo Performing Arts Center, now commonly referred to as MPAC.

As we wait for tonight’s celebration to begin, we chat with several patrons in the audience, including Allison from Wayne who tells us, “This is our absolute favorite theater! They have great shows, and it’s in a great location where there are tons of great restaurants within walking distance. We come here about once a month.”

Recalling, “We were introduced to the theater by friends about five years ago — we loved it and have kept coming back ever since,” Allison notes, “We’ve seen Sara McLaughlin, Chris Isaak, Sara Evans, Paul Anka, Jackie Evancho, Yanni, and many more, and they were all wonderful,” before her husband, Albert, adds, “And the acoustics and sound are great here, too.”

Allison’s father, Peter from Hasbrook Heights, agrees declaring, “This is a wonderful theater! You can hear well and you can see well,” acknowledging, “We always get the same seats,” joking, “Maybe we can get a name plaque on them!” before concluding, “We all love going into town for family dinner before enjoying a show here together.”

The lights dim and Allison Larena, President and CEO of MPAC, thanks the crowd for coming to tonight’s 25th Anniversary kick-off Gala. The audience gives a warm round of applause for the MPAC staff, crew, and volunteers; for the members of the Board of Trustees, past and present; to Bud and Sudi Mayo; as well as for Elizabeth Mattson, Chair of the NJ State Council of the Arts, who is presented with a plaque as a thanks for the organization’s continued support.

The show opens with Megan and Cole, two teenage members of an MPAC-sponsored performing arts company for youngsters aged 13–18 which performs at senior centers, nursing homes, and hospitals throughout the community.

Following the pair’s upbeat rendition of Ariana Grande’s “Brand New You,” Megan’s powerful voice is featured on Etta James’ “At Last,” and Cole is spotlighted on an energetic interpretation of “Shallow” from the Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper film, A Star is Born.

The couple concludes with “This is Me” from The Greatest Showman before the audience avidly applauds for these two talented teens.

A trio of musicians on piano, bass, and drums take their places on stage and begin to play as the audience rises to its feet and applauds for Katharine McPhee’s entrance.

Standing center stage, McPhee sings with passion and style on the timeless Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim West Side Story composition, “Somewhere.”

With her powerhouse vocal style, she croons, “There’s a place for us/Somewhere a place for us,” much to the delight of the packed house of music lovers of all ages.

Following enthusiastic applause, McPhee exclaims, “Thank you so much, Morristown! How’s everybody feeling tonight? We hope we can give you a fun night. We’ll tell some stories and even have a little audience participation.”

Connecting with the audience with her warm and bubbly personality, McPhee lets her vocal talent shine on Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”

Then, she lets her band “take it away” and dances to the engaging instrumentals provided by her trio on piano, bass, and drums.

McPhee sings the introduction to an American Songbook classic before stopping and asking if anyone recognizes the title of the song. After no one in the crowd is able to correctly identify the mystery intro, she jokes, “You failed!” before inviting the audience to snap along with her on the verse of her sexy and inviting rendition of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Love is Here to Stay.”

McPhee shares with the crowd some of her experiences appearing on American Idol before acknowledging, “I was given this dress” — a dazzling ’40s style black and gold outfit with a plunging neckline and slit up the front of the skirt — “by my hairdresser the other day.”

Tastefully accompanied by her trio on a soulful and swinging version of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” at the end, McPhee changes the lyrics from “God bless the child/That’s got his own” to “God bless the child/That’s got her own!”

With country-like vocal stylings, McPhee performs Nat King Cole’s “Blame It On My Youth” to solo piano accompaniment before stand-up bass, drums, and piano join in on a jazzy, country rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “You Make Me Feel So Young” — with a little hint of soul thrown in.

McPhee uses her cell phone to call her husband, music producer David Foster, who — with the help of a microphone held up to the phone — has a pleasant chat with both his spouse and the MPAC audience.

“How’s my wife doing so far?” he asks the crowd, to which the packed house responds with enthusiastic cheers.

McPhee has an audience member in the front row hold the phone so she can dedicate her next number — a romantic rendition of My Fair Lady’s “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face” — to her husband.

After saying goodbye, McPhee sings several songs from her television show, Smash, a highlight of which is “Heart Shaped Wreckage,” featuring an arpeggiated piano accompaniment which rolls and builds supporting her heartfelt vocal as it fills the theater.

Following avid applause, McPhee talks about her 2018 Broadway debut as Jenna in Waitress, and also acknowledges that she performed in Waitress in London. Here, she introduces a friend in the audience — actress Marisha Wallace, who played Becky in that production — before singing a ballad from the show, “She Used to be Mine,” with great emotion and feeling.

McPhee’s voice soars and pleads on another tune from Smash — the power ballad, “Don’t Forget Me” — and she follows up with her interpretation of Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” where she jokingly changes the lyrics from “You’re riding high in April/Shot down in May” to “You’re riding high in April/Smash is cancelled in May!”

As she continues to croon, she makes her way down into the audience, talking to patrons, shaking hands, and taking selfies before asking the crowd to sing along on the “I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate/A poet, a pawn and a king” lyric.

Sweet and personable, she shares her charismatic personality with the crowd before she’s rewarded with a standing ovation. Bowing as she thanks the audience, she waves and exits.

McPhee returns to the stage and tells the crowd about how she first heard her next song at a time when her parents were separating, but reveals that it now makes her think of her father who passed away last year.

For her first encore, McPhee performs an emotional rendition of Nina Simone’s “Everything Must Change.” Singing with her soul, she croons, “Everything must change/ Nothing stays the same…The young become the old/And mysteries do unfold/For that’s the way of time/No one, and nothing goes unchanged,” her voice bringing to life this beautiful and poignant song.

Following huge applause, McPhee says, “When I met David Foster, he was a guest mentor on American Idol, and he ended up producing my recording of this next song.”

Telling the audience, “Life is full of crazy chances. Spread love and keep an open mind. Hold onto love if you can find it,” she performs a stunning rendition of what many consider to be her signature American Idol song, “Over the Rainbow.”

Singing the introduction a cappella in the bright white spotlight, she is joined by piano, standup bass, and drums which kick in just as a rainbow of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet lights illuminate the curtains behind her as she sings the “Someday I’ll wish upon a star/And wake up where the clouds are far behind me” bridge.

McPhee’s voice is full and wonderful as the arrangement modulates, and she concludes by holding out the notes of the final “Why, oh why can’t I?” coda as audience members leap to their feet and burst into applause.

Graciously shaking hands with fans in the front row, McPhee gives a final nod and waves to the full house before exiting the stage.

As audience members filter out of the MPAC auditorium, we chat with several who share their thoughts regarding tonight’s 25th Anniversary Gala starring Katharine McPhee.

Exclaims Marcia from West Caldwell, “Katharine McPhee was fabulous — her voice sounds better than ever!” disclosing, “This is my first time at this theater and I definitely will be back.”

Margie from Randolph comments, “I live in the area and this theater is just great,” before noting, “and I loved Katharine McPhee — I enjoyed her singing, her stories, and her personality; she is so warm.”

Nancy from Randolph concurs exclaiming, “She was wonderful — she has such a beautiful voice!”

Danielle from Bridgewater asserts, “I am a fan of both this theater and of Katharine McPhee. The theater is a wonderful performance space, and the show was terrific — Katharine McPhee sounded amazing.”

Continuing, “My family and I watched American Idol together and we rooted for her — we think she should have won,” Danielle reveals, “It was exciting to hear her live. I especially liked ‘Over the Rainbow’ — that song is very special to me.”

Says Ted from Foster Towhship, “This is my first time at this theater — and it’s beautiful! We are long time fans of Katharine McPhee — we have all of her CDs. Her bubbly personality really connected with this audience, and her voice is excellent — she has wonderful control.”

Ted’s wife, Rita, agrees adding, “She’s a powerhouse — very natural,” before adding, “And we love the fact that this gorgeous theater was saved and renovated — we are theater people so we can really appreciate the amount of work that went into it.”

Finally, we chat with Marsha from Plainfield who neatly sums up her thoughts on this entire unforgettable evening when she declares, “Bravo to Katharine McPhee and bravo to MPAC!”

To learn more about Katharine McPhee, please to go bignoisenow.com/katharinemcphee. To find out about upcoming events at MPAC — including William Shatner Live on Stage following a screening of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan on Oct. 4, Kenny G on October 12, and Gladys Knight on November 24 — please go to mayoarts.org.

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