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Theater Review: "The Hit Factory" at JCC CenterStage


Four weeks ago, I got to hear Audra McDonald in concert at the Eastman Theatre. Last week, I got to hear Darren Frazier singing at the Jewish Community Center.

Frazier, along with 10 other masterful singers, is featured in "The Hit Factory," a revue of musical numbers composed in Manhattan's iconic Brill Building during the 1950's and 60's, including "It's My Party," "Chapel of Love," "Under the Boardwalk," and "One Fine Day."

The show, conceived and written by JCC CenterStage artistic director Ralph Meranto and Sandy Foster, a history teacher at The Harley School, celebrates collaborations between artists of diverse racial and religious backgrounds -- making its debut during Black History Month particularly apt.

Frazier has a booming baritone voice and a wickedly sweet smile that melts the heart. This is a heavyweight performer, with credits including "The Wizard of Oz" with Eartha Kitt and Mickey Rooney, and the first national tour of "Stomp."

Frazier is joined on stage by several other talented individuals, most notably Di'ta Monique, Matthew Wegman and Laura Jean Smillie Diekmann.

Monique is a wailer, and her rendition of "Alley-Alley Blues" by Doc Pomus can only be described as divine. She has performed on stage with Cab Calloway and the Winans, and starred as Dorothy in the national tour of "The Wiz."

Wegman has a rich tenor voice that comfortably sails into the falsetto range. With a delightful face and twinkling eyes, this 2008 Nazareth College grad -- with experience singing aboard Celebrity Cruises -- is a pleasure to watch and hear.

JCC CenterStage audiences are big fans of Smillie Diekmann, who has starred in numerous musical productions directed by Meranto. This actress can sing, and can really sell a song like nobody else. She naturally knows to play downstage, in close proximity to the audience. Her emotional take on Carole King and Gerry Goffin's classic, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," was truly breathtaking.

But it was Frazier who stopped the show -- twice, in fact -- with his performances of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil's "On Broadway," and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," written by those two composers along with Phil Spector, and popularized by the Righteous Brothers.

Two other talented leads, along with five energetic back-up singers, round-out the two-hour, two-act show that features 40 hits from the Brill Building era. Entertaining and educational anecdotes about the songs and their creators are woven throughout the show, and all pieces are backed by a skilled instrumental combo led by music director and arranger Casey Filiaci.

Meranto and Foster have put together a magic moment of a show.