A near sell-out audience braved the elements Friday night to fill Century II Concert Hall for the Wichita Symphony's performance of "Death on the Downbeat," featuring the Magic Circle Theatre Company.
An innovative troupe of two, Magic Circle has been bringing concert music and theater together since 1978, winning audiences around the globe. This weekend's production required an additional actor and also included numerous cameo appearances by figures from the Wichita community, including Mayor Carl Brewer.
The stage was set as a crime scene, with the orchestra in its midst. Something of a film noir spoof, the production used the actors to weave a classic whodunit story through the texture of an enjoyable pops concert. Although the performance was a "blue jeans" concert — with the audience and orchestra alike in casual attire — there was nothing casual about the orchestra's playing, which was some of the finest this season.
The ensemble played with apparent ease and finesse, after steeling itself to the rigors of performing a world premiere and Mahler's 5th Symphony just two weeks ago.
This is not to say there was anything easy about the program, which began with Leonard Bernstein's Overture to Candide, led by Wichita State Orchestra conductor Mark Laycock.
The plot requires an emergency replacement conductor as the fictitious guest conductor has been "murdered." Laycock, after fulfilling his role with aplomb, soon vanishes in the darkness that mysteriously falls over the stage as the overture ends. And so the twists and turns of the plot begin. Music director Andrew Sewell then comes to the rescue to conduct the remainder of the program.
Sewell, concertmaster John Harrison and other members of the orchestra turned in delightfully campy performances to help advance the plot toward its shocking conclusion, then turned deftly back to their musicianship.
From strings to percussion, every section played with clarity and precision. Each soloist in their turn played with beauty and color, and the brass section achieved a wonderful blend of sound. Under Sewell's skillful baton the orchestra rendered each of the nine works on the program with a sense of style appropriate to each piece.
From the effervescence and sublime beauty of the Bernstein Overture, to the sultry '50s swing style of the "Perry Mason Theme" that concluded the concert, the orchestra was spot on.
After the final performance today of "Death on the Downbeat," the symphony's classics season resumes and will feature three programs before the season ends in April.