We rush to our cushioned seats, bottled water and fresh, crunchy corn chips in hand, just minutes before the start of the show. At long last, another Phoenix Theatre Company event. The arts had all but shuttered indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tonight, we’ll be treated to a wonderful performance by We3; a show titled The Great American Songbook: A Tribute to Phoenix’s Arts Community.
We3 is a talented musical trio, consisting of pianist Nicole Pesce, violinist Suzanne Lansford, and vocalist Renee Grant Patrick. Their repertoire consists of classical pieces, show tunes and jazz standards — although realistically they have the chops to perform just about anything that can be performed with piano, violin and voice.
Here’s the thing: Arizona is still in the middle of a pandemic situation. It would be irresponsible to be attending live theatre under these conditions. But we’re not. Instead, the Phoenix Theatre Company has brought live theater into our homes. In July, we reviewed the virtual performance, UNITE: A Benefit for Black Lives Matter. In the same vein, the Company webcasts The Great American Songbook from a small stage somewhere on the Phoenix Theatre Company campus via modern video conferencing technology. We know it more commonly as Zoom.
Before us is not the familiar Main Stage theater venue, but rather a laptop computer with a 14-inch screen. The headphone output is easily routed to a home stereo system with five speakers and surround sound. There’s even a slick method to “cast” the image on the computer screen to the television — but nobody can quite figure out how to set that up. But no matter. We’re outfitted and ready for an immersive theater experience in the comfort and safety of our own home.
After some brief introductions, the three performers launch into lively renditions of jazz, swing, blues and show tunes by the likes of such luminaries as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. Between numbers, pianist and “frontperson” Nicole Pesce regales us with interesting insights into the life and times of the composers. Sammy Cahn (pop hits and movie scores) and Jule Styne (Broadway show tunes) are equally represented in We3’s eclectic offering. Pesce’s frenetic solo rendition of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” is mesmerizing and breathtaking. Violinist Suzanne Lansford folds in her klezmer-inspired lilts that are a recurring theme of the Gershwin masterpiece.
Lansford and Pesce further show off their talents as virtuoso and jazz improvisers on “Summertime”, a timeless and oft-covered spiritual song of yearning that Gershwin wrote for his musical “Porgy & Bess”. Interestingly, this rendition is performed without DuBose Heyward’s lyrics, but is nonetheless emotional and captivating. Several lyrical numbers feature vocalist Renee Grant Patrick, whose voice is as smooth as silk and as sultry as summer in New Orleans. As they sing and play, they vamp among themselves, giggling and enjoying their own spontaneous interactions, without dropping a syllable or note of any song.
The part of the theatre experience that is noticeably missing are the audience accolades in between selections. While we do our best to utilize the sparse selection of on-screen emoticons — a thumbs-up, a heart, and two hands clapping — we are alone in the endeavor, even though there are several dozen other individuals and couples in attendance. Here is an example of what could be improved with a little imagination. The UNITE benefit, for example, had a much more interactive audience and the result was truly a communal experience. One could surmise that it really depends upon the event and its target audience. Nonetheless, we’re there for the show, and not for the audience comradery.
To that end, we give high praise to We3 for their energy, their enthusiasm, and their talents. We consider this experience a tasty teaser to some future live show, should we be so lucky as to find We3 returning to Phoenix.
THIS JUST IN! The Phoenix Theatre Company is in the midst of preparing an outdoor venue in which to open back up in November of 2020. In this format, they are able to space audience members in pairs, six feet apart in all directions. We look forward to attending this new format and will follow up shortly thereafter with more reviews.
Until then, sit back and enjoy. We won’t worry about munching our corn chips too loudly during the performance. There’s no one else here to shush us. We could get used to this.