Making memories through song

By Julian Wise - April 20, 2006

Minnesingers perform in vintage-style clothing to evoke the 1980s. Photos by Karen Mcleod

Martha's Vineyard. Ireland. Martha's Vineyard.

This travel itinerary for the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School Minnesingers reflects the mobile, dynamic nature of this singing group. After all, it's not every outfit that can prepare for its annual Island concert by skipping to the other side of the Atlantic for a series of shows before returning to the high school's Performing Arts Center at the end of April for their final performance. Their 2006 show is an entertaining cork-popper that veers wildly from the stately notes of "Ave Maria" to Vanilla Ice's "Ice, Ice Baby."

The theme of this year's performance is 1980s music, and choreographer Jil Matrisciano and musical director Dan Murphy have done a sterling job of crafting a quick, fun, yet substantial show that in lesser hands would have devolved into pure camp.

Prior to the 80s fun, the Minnesingers float through a graceful set that includes "Adoramus Te," "Mata Del Anima Sola," "Away From the Roll of the Sea," "Buffalo Gals," and "He is Risen, Alleluia!" The singers, dressed in elegant whites and blacks, hit grace notes and harmonies with elegant flair.

After a brief intermission for costume change, the retro antics commence. It would be a crime to reveal the entire set list here, as much of the pleasure of the performance comes from the element of surprise. Without spoiling the fun, it's sufficient to say that "Love Shack" gets a rollicking rendition, Huey Lewis's "Hip 2 B Square" is a masterpiece of geek-chic theater. "Eye of the Tiger" emerges as a spoof on testosterone-soaked gym culture, and the evening ends with a show-stopping rendition of a 1980s video classic (hint: think of a one-gloved singer). While sticklers might point out that the 80s theme isn't a precise label because Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" was released in 1975 and Vanilla Ice's "Ice, Ice Baby" was a relic of 1990, most others will be having too much fun to notice or care.

Hours before their flight to Ireland, several of the singers gave voice to their anticipation. "I'm both excited and nervous," says Reid MacPherson. "Performing in another country, thinking about the audience's response to us.... I don't know how they'll react."

While he was born in 1989, just as these songs were fading from the radio, Reid says he's developed an affinity for the music. "I love it. It's absolutely great. It's so fun to dance to. Like many of the performers, he's discovered the challenge of blending complex choreography with skillful singing.

Jonah Lipsky (left) and Nick Hathaway as the Blues Brothers.

"You have to get the moves right in your head so you don't have to think about it. Singing the chorus to the songs is so hard if you don't know what you're doing onstage. You've got to be able to have fun and not have to think about it at all. It just comes to you."

Lilla Warren describes 80s music as "upbeat and party." She says being a minnesinger is a growing process that encourages maturity and commitment. "Learning to cooperate and work with other people is one of the big things Mr. Murphy always tries to get us to do," she says. "The goal is to work together, to blend our voices and make it sound as one. It's a nice way to build teamwork skills. I'm really proud of that."

Tony Cortez, star of the recent theatrical production "Grease," says getting to travel to Europe is a phenomenal opportunity. "I've personally never gone anywhere in my life," he says, "and to now be going with the Minnesingers to Ireland is an incredible experience."

He is generous with his praise for his instructors, claiming that Ms. Matrisciano and Mr. Murphy bring out the best in the students. "Our choreographer Jil is absolutely fantastic. She takes the best songs and teaches them to us, and it's reliving the 80s. Mr. Murphy is probably the best director I've ever known. He knows exactly what he's talking about. He's awesome."

Tony Cortez juggles team sports with the rigors of Minnesinger rehearsals, yet he says the hard work is well worth it in the end. "Everything you learn from being in the minnesingers is the best experience," he says. "It's an awesome accomplishment to know I can sing, dance, and perform. I love being on stage. I love everything about it."

Minnesingers "Back to the Eighties" concerts Saturday, April 29, 8 pm and Sunday, April 30, 3 pm at Performing Arts Center, high school, Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road, Oak Bluffs. Tickets are $10 for adults; $5 for seniors or students. Family price $25, Sunday only.

Julian Wise is a frequent contributor to The Times, specializing in music, film, and the performing arts.