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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Wisconsin Band excitement gushes at Weidner Center

The annual gig follows the Final Four flurry.

PHOTO: Mike Leckrone directs the University of Wisconsin Varsity Band at a recent performance. UW Foundation photo

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – A full house Sunday afternoon, April 13, at the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts had the ready answer for the question, “Isn’t this a great time to be a Badger?”

On the heels of a wave of athletic successes for University of Wisconsin-Madison teams, the atmosphere was charged for a show by the Wisconsin Varsity Band, the sit-down, concert version of the fabled Wisconsin Marching Band. It’s hard to say the atmosphere was any more charged than any of the band’s previous 16 annual visits to Green Bay for such a concert. The concerts are always a blast. They’re entertaining, lively and exciting. They’re also somewhat overwhelming.

“Can you hear the trombones okay, lady?” director/showman Mike Leckrone asked as the band took its place Sunday. That’s Mike Leckrone’s standard line because EVERYBODY can hear the trombones, all 30 of them, blazing away in the front row. Contained in a concert hall, the band – 148 players for this occasion – is something of a weapon. Instead of wall of sound, HALL OF SOUND is the catchphrase. In a stadium, the music flies off into air. In a hall, it flies into your head.

The Varsity Band puts on quite a show. Players burst upon the stage from the center aisles, strutting high all the way, and then making a quick spin to turn to their row of seats on stage. From entrance to taking a seat, the whole maneuver is choreographed. At ordinary concerts, musicians stroll to their places. The Wisconsin Varsity Band ARRIVES.

During the 95-minute performance, anniversaries popped up as a theme – 50 years for The Beatles, 50 years for James Bond movies, 25 years for “The Phantom of the Opera,” 40 years for the Mike Leckrone-led Varsity Band. The show was built around the anniversaries, plus the expected numbers from the band’s trademark “Fifth Quarter” following games.

***

The program

- “Pinball Wizard”

- “Beer Barrel Polka,” with some players dancing in the aisles with kids from the audience

- “Hey Song,” with Mike Leckrone prompting the quick standing, shouting, plus swaying

- Medley of hits by rock ‘n’ roll divas, including “Locomotion,” “Chapel of Love,” “Leader of the Pack,” and, with four people from the audience picked to do the percussion on stage, “It’s in His Kiss”

- Medley of one-hit wonders, including “Play Some Funky Music,” “Banana Boat Song,” “Short People” (with an audience member directing) and “King Tut,” including the band singing on one time through

- Medley of Beatles songs, including “She Was Just 17,” “When I’m 64” and “Yesterday”

- “Caravan,” a Duke Ellington big band number featuring drummer Tommy Johnson.

- Medley of James Bond movie tunes, including “Goldfinger,” “Live and Let Die” and “For Your Eyes Only”

-“Tequila”

- “The Chicken Dance,” including a “new world record” run-through in 23 second flat

- Medley from “The Phantom of the Opera,” including “Think of Me,” “Masquerade,” “The Music of the Night” and “The Phantom of the Opera”

- “Fifth Quarter” tunes, including “When You Say Wisconsin” (“The Bud Song”), “Varsity” and “On, Wisconsin” fused with the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey”

***

Mike Leckrone is a colorful showman. He dresses the part, with his outfit for Sunday something that Liberace would appreciate – white shoes and slacks, silky red coat with sparkly do-dads in a flashy pattern in the middle of the back and sparklies around the fringes and on the lapels. With the spotlights, Mike Leckrone didn’t have to light anything with LED lights. He just shone as if he were Times Square on the hoof.

The section for “The Phantom of the Opera” was done up in a special way. One of the trumpet players dressed in a black suit, hat and cap, put on the Phantom mask and played key passages from different points in the hall, including a maintenance stairway. He was like the story’s Phantom slinking around the Paris Opera House.

The event, as usual, was very ON. It had plenty of kick. Plenty of spice. It was interesting to experience the Weidner Center’s main hall be overwhelmed by the sound. The acoustics are lively from the get go. Put the UW Varsity Band on stage, and the decibel levels are disorienting with time. The band is meant for stadiums, and the genre of music-playing is built for blast-away playing, not finesse. In the crush of sounds, layer upon layers for the different brass sections, picking out a melody or main thread of music is tricky. In some medleys, some tunes were not recognizable to me. As indoor concert fare, it was a 4 stars out of 5 performance. As u-rah-rah, everybody-loves-being-a-Badgers-fan entertainment, it was 5 stars out of 5.

Some past editions of this show included live projected images from within the band. That was not the case this year.

While the event is a fundraiser for UW scholarships, it is not an alumni-only affair – though there was plenty of Wisconsin red team wear in the crowd. During the singing of the alma mater, “Varsity,” about 10 percent of the audience stood, sang and waved slowly. In other words, the crowd was mostly Badger fans rather than alums. It’s then impressive that the UW teams can generate such loyalty (outstate) and the band can draw a throng on a Sunday afternoon.

The show included abundant laughs. There was the usual back and forth kidding between the tuba section and Mike Leckrone. First, Mike Leckrone kidded that he was once asked if he had one day left to live how would he spend it? With the tuba section. Why? “Because it would seem longer.” Tuba section response, 13 voices in unison: What’s the difference between Mike Leckrone and a 2-year-old baby? “One wears diapers and cries, and one is 2 years old.”

The band was fresh from the UW men’s basketball team’s pulse-pumping climb up the ladder to the Final Four, until Kentucky escaped with a one-point win. Mike Leckrone talked about the heady experiences of the band, and then got in a monumental dig. He spoke of Wisconsin academics and said he heard at the Final Four about the new emphasis that Kentucky has. He said that university has a new slogan: “Kentucky academics – good and getting gooder.”

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 between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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