UMaine SPA hosts ‘Astonishing’ annual fundraiser

Guest artist Stephanie Burkett Gerso performs with University of Maine students in the School of Performing Arts' annual fundraiser. Photo by Sze Wing Wong.

Guest artist Stephanie Burkett Gerso performs with University of Maine students in the School of Performing Arts’ annual fundraiser. Photo by Sze Wing Wong.

On Saturday, Jan. 30, the University of Maine School of Performing Arts (SPA) held its third annual Fundraiser Pops Concert, “Astonishing! The Songs and Stories of Broadway’s Best.”

The first SPA fundraiser was held in Hauck Auditorium in 2014. After a sold out show and an overwhelming response from the community, the show moved to the Collins Center for the Arts. Between the performers, the orchestra, the production team and the tech team, there were close to 100 people involved in the show.

“The fact that the concert is held at CCA is really cool,” Alexis Gillis, a second-year student and a soloist in the show, said. “I don’t get to sing there very often, so when I do, it makes it seem like a big deal because it is a big, grand deal.”

Auditions for the fundraiser were held in October. Rehearsing with her voice teacher, as well as on her own, Gillis shared that over the past two weeks, she got to sing with a 50-member orchestra consisting of UMaine students, faculty and alumni.

“Orchestra and voice fit together so well,” Gillis said. “Orchestra changes everything, making the sound so much more powerful. Having the orchestra back me up helps me get into the music more, and this whole energy is amazing.”

“The job of the orchestra is to back up the vocalists. Going into it, we all knew our roles and what to do to put on a good show, and it all came together very well,” Ethan Manning, a third-year student and a saxophonist in the orchestra, said.

“[The fundraiser concert] has become a kind of a well-oiled machine,” Ben McNaboe, music director and a conductor of the show, said. Now a graduate student, McNaboe, 23, put together the first annual fundraiser during his senior year of undergraduate studies at UMaine.

After transferring to UMaine his sophomore year, McNaboe realized the divisions of music, theater and dance at the SPA did not have an event where they merged in a common performing experience.

“This fundraiser concert fills that void in a very big way,” McNaboe said. “It is more than raising money; it is about influencing culture and cultivating it.”

Each year, the fundraiser concert grows and evolves. According to McNaboe, this year’s program is more musically challenging than it has been in the past. The narrative of the show follows the story of an underdog through old and new Broadway hits, including “Not for the Life of Me,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “It’s Delovely,” “Anything Goes,” “Astonishing” and more.

The fundraiser featured guest artist Stephanie Burkett Gerson, a member of Actor’s Equity and an active member of New York City’s most well known gospel choir, Michael McElroy’s Broadway Inspirational Voices. Gerson tours with the USO Show Troupe around the world, lifting the spirits of America’s troops and families. McNaboe met Gerson last year when she traveled to Orono with “Disney in Concert.”

“When Stephanie was here, the idea of next year’s fundraiser was fresh in my mind,” McNaboe said. “We were looking a for guest artists and she was here.”  

McNaboe and Gerson collaborated on song selection. The show included seven duet songs.

“‘Astonishing’ is one of my favorite songs,” Gerson said. “Ben also had this song in his mind, so him and I freaked out when we realized that we were thinking the same way,” Gerson shared. “For duets, we tried to pick songs that would fit both guys and girls.”

Since Gerson resides in New York City, she was in constant communication with McNaboe this past year.

“We have sent probably over thousands of texts and emails to each other,” McNaboe said. In addition to the fundraiser, McNaboe is working on several projects including an upcoming SPA musical “Urinetown.” “I had to keep everything separate and organized, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” McNaboe said.

“Ben is a an excellent conductor, if issues arose he fixed them immediately. I don’t think I’ve met anyone more organized than Ben in my life. He makes SPA very proud,” Manning said.

This year, McNaboe worked on expanding both the production of the fundraiser concert and the outreach. In addition to performing in concert, Gerson, who has been teaching voice and piano for thirteen 13 years, shared her expertise with young performers at four Maine public high schools, and taught a master class on Friday, Jan. 29, in Minsky Recital Hall.

“I was teaching since I was 17, and I know that I will always teach, as long as I can sing and until I can’t teach anymore,” Gerson shared. “Teaching is a full circle for me, a walk down my memory lane. Inspiring young kids to go after what they want to do is very fulfilling.”

“Stephanie is fantastic, it’s great to see how some of the top singers come here and sing with us. It really motivated me musically to rise to her level,” Manning said.

Three hundred tickets were sold prior to the show, and an estimate of an additional 300 were sold on the show day.

President Susan Hunter was also amongst the many who enjoyed the show.

“The show was wonderful, they all did a fabulous job,” President Hunter said. “I am looking forward to the next, 4th fourth annual show,” President Hunter shared.

Money raised by the fundraiser will support the University Singers tour to England and Ireland, help the SPA continue to provide experiences and opportunities for students passionate about professional performing and increase the SPA outreach initiatives throughout the state of Maine and the New England region.

After the show, the audience showed praise to McNaboe and the performers through standing ovations.

“The audience last year was very responsive, and absolutely loved listening to the songs that they know,” Gillis said before the show. “It seemed as if they got transformed into a new world, and I want the same, if not better response this year.”

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