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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Mannheim Steamroller pulls ’em in at Weidner

The expansive touring Christmas production is filled with visuals.

PHOTO: Mannheim Steamroller Christmas concerts include visual elements like these, plus movie-like scenes.

GREEN BAY, Wis., (WFRV) – After 28 years on the Christmas touring scene, Mannheim Steamroller is a brand. The brand means… mostly familiar seasonal songs done up in vast electronic landscapes that stir the imagination.

In Green Bay, the Mannheim Steamroller brand is strong enough that one of its concerts can play simultaneously with a Packers game and score about a 90 percent full house at the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts. That situation happened when Sunday evening’s concert, part of the season/subscription attractions of the center, sold well enough that an afternoon concert was added to accommodate demand. The Packers won, and so did Mannheim Steamroller.

Fans were treated to two hours of those vast electronic landscapes enhanced by plentiful visual displays. In some cases, the visuals were lighting displays, with effects beamed on walls and the ceiling of the Cofrin Family Hall. Images projected on a screen behind and above the band also were part of the show, with some of those being flowing impressionistic art and/or geometric patterns and some being animated village/pastoral/wintery scenes and movie-like scenes from a medieval madrigal dinner. In a way, the audience was spoon fed a suggestion of what it was to think while listening to the Mannheim Steamroller music. You could get into a philosophical argument about that – and hurt your head – but I liked the imagery because I’ve found other Mannheim Steamroller concerts static. On paper, the program looks ordinary (to be continued after this):

Program

“Hark the Herald”

Renaissance selection

“Greensleeves”

“White Christmas”

“Little Drummer Boy”

“Nutcracker Suite” selection

“Joy to the World”

Selection encompassing a life

“O Holy Night”

Selection describing a reverie

“Good King Wenceslas”

A dance selection

“We Saw Three Kings”

“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”

“Halleluiah Chorus”

“Walking in a Winter Wonderland”

“Carol of the Bells”

“Silent Night” (Encore)

“Deck the Halls” (Encore)
… but each piece is explored in a blend of instruments that are standard, traditional or selection-specific and those that are electric/electronic gadgetry. The selections take familiar melodies and present them in new ways.

The brand Mannheim Steamroller has grown to the degree that it has branches – two Christmas touring lineups. The group that played at the Weidner is called the Green Band. Its traveling lineup consists of bassist Ron Cooley, violinist Becky Kia, recorder player Roxanne Layton, drummer Logan Penington, keyboardist Christy Crowl, keyboardist John Blasucci. In each city, nine orchestral musicians augment the performance, and that was the case at the Weidner. Creator Chip Davis appears on screen to tell about the touring groups and his separate gig (because he no longer tours).

The program is such that there is little wiggle room for spontaneity. Individual band members goof around a little bit among themselves, but mostly what happens has to happen in a given sequence. What happens is quite likeable and very good (4 stars out of 5).

The ticket prices were a bit lofty ($100 for prime seats), but that showed in the visuals. One sequence is especially intriguing. It shows a boy receiving a drum as a gift. The short film may be an anti-war statement because at the end it’s left open whether the boy, grown to be a soldier, did not come back.

Sunday afternoon’s show earned a standing ovation.

The Weidner’s main hall is a great place for such a concert. A live Mannheim Steamroller concert living, 3-D surround sound for sure – a wonderful shared experience.

THE VENUE: Cofrin Family Hall is one of three performance spaces within the Edward W. Weidner Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. At its maximum capacity setup, the hall seats 2,021 over its three levels of maple-and-burgundy seats. Opened Jan. 15, 1993, the hall was built to adapt to the needs of orchestra concerts, operas, musicals, plays and organ, band and choral concerts. For acoustical properties, wood is emphasized on the seats, mezzanine and balcony surfaces and walls near the stage. Many surfaces are curved to help shape the sound. Wood is featured for an aesthetic reason, too – a “from here” aura of woodsy Northeastern Wisconsin.

THE PEOPLE: The name Cofrin relates in great degree to A.E. Cofrin, founder of Fort Howard Paper Co., and his son, Dr. David A. Cofrin, who was instrumental in building the Weidner Center through multi-million-dollar donations. A friendship developed between David A. Cofrin (1921-2009) and Edward W. Weidner (1921-2007), the beloved founding chancellor of UWGB. Weidner arrived when there were no buildings on the present-day campus on rolling hills near the shore of Green Bay. His interests ranged from academia to birding to sports. He loved building projects. It was in his blood. He guided the building of the Weidner Center, so named from early on in construction. Weidner admitted his eyes welled once when driving to a performance and seeing a green sign along the highway: WEIDNER CENTER.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV at 6:45 p.m. Thursdays and every other Sunday between 6 and 8 a.m. (usually around 7:45 a.m.)

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