‘Alto on the Loose’ heats up Firehouse Stage

 Reviewed by David L. Schriber

What do you call an alto who can sing (not just “hit” but really sing) a high C, yet also can visit notes in the baritone range? Answer:  Hilerie Klein-Rensi. She is well known as a local classical soloist but is equally at home with musical theater, as her cabaret routine “Alto on the Loose” proved convincingly Sunday (Dec. 5) at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage in Johnson City.

Because of her wide vocal range, it’s hard to classify Klein-Rensi. She lists herself as a mezzo-soprano. Certainly anyone who can sing high C can claim the term “soprano.” In her case the “mezzo” doesn’t so much mean “middle” as it does “more than.” Her earliest vocal experience steered her to alto parts, which, she confessed, predisposes one to a certain psychological complex. Sopranos are the darlings of song, the protagonists in opera, the heroines of musical theater. Sopranos get the melody and the glory notes, and the other parts get the notes no one hears or remembers. This is why altos (and, truth be told, all of us lower voice parts) take a dim view of the soprano who insists on covering them with high notes when the lower part has the rare chance to sing melody.

Klein-Rensi’s opening number, “Alto’s Lament,” pokes fun at the fate of the voice part that’s so often, as she later sang, “always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” “While everyone is singing ‘O-o-o-kla-ho-ma!’ I get ‘Sky-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-yo-ho.’” Her Spamalot tune, “Whatever Happened to My Part?”, raised the same complaint.

Klein-Rensi noted, however, that the alto in musical theater often plays more interesting, complex character roles. Her “Alto on the Loose” program illustrated the point with more than 20 numbers from a wide variety of musicals from many eras, from “I get a Kick Out of You” and “Can’t Stop Lovin’ That Man of Mine” to Evita’s “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” Les Mis’ “All Alone” and Ragtime’s “Your Daddy’s Son,” these last sung with deep pathos.

Balancing the program were light-hearted numbers such as “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No,” “I’ve Got Rhythm,” South Pacific’s “My Honeybun” and her whimsical encore, “Taylor the Latte Boy” (“bring me java, bring me joy”).

Klein-Rensi explained each selection’s context in the plot of its musical, making much more meaningful the dramatic emotion she conveyed as she sang. She engaged the audience with eye contact that did not merely glance, but connected.

Now if there’s a musical role that’s even more overlooked than a lower voice part, it’s the piano accompanist. The accompanist is the Rodney Dangerfield of musical stage. And yet an accompanist’s role is more complex than that of a piano soloist. The accompanist must follow the vocalist’s fluid rhythm and match both volume and mood. In perfect synchrony in all of this throughout their 90-minute program was accompanist Pej Reitz, who played with her usual exuberance and intensity.

The time passed quickly for the modest but appreciative audience, and afterwards Klein-Rensi could truthfully tell her father when he would call her later that, yes, she had sung his favorite song: “Send in the Clowns.”

This was the Klein-Rensi/Reitz duo’s fourth staging of “Alto on the Loose.” Klein-Rensi said once she settled on the theme, she easily found enough material for eight volumes. We hope Volume 2 will come out soon.

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