Madison Gallup ’18/ Emertainment Monthly Executive TV Editor
What happens when hundreds of passionate theater geeks join together to cheer on some of the best talent Broadway has to offer? One amazing festival celebrating music, movies, TV, and the enthusiasm and willingness to discover something new. This festival, created by Darren Criss– best known for his role as Blaine Anderson on Glee, is called Elsie Fest.
On Labor Day of 2016, the show went on for the second year in a row. This time the venue was the Ford Amphitheater at Coney Island, which accommodated the musical crowd well with seats in every section and a couple vending areas near the front and back of the theater.
About halfway through the day of back to back show-stopping performances, Elvis Duran, a popular New York based radio personality, came onto the stage to proclaim that this year’s festival kicked last year’s ass. This sentiment seems to be shared by the large number of people who have attended both Elsie Fest’s, but what remains consistent is the palpable excitement at the mere fact that such an event exists and could become an annual occurrence.
The day kicked off about an hour late because the VIP meet and greets were taking longer than anticipated, but that fact alone is pretty telling about the kind of people running and performing in the festival; each wanting and willing to take the time to connect with their fans before the show. Kicking off the show around 2pm was the immensely talented Megan Hilty, known for her lead role in the now canceled NBC show Smash. A recurring joke throughout the day was the fact that the rating numbers would suggest that most of the active viewers of Smash were all in the amphitheater hooting and hollering at every mention of the show. In addition to showcasing some of her favorite songs from Smash, Hilty belted her way through classic show tunes including “Popular” from Wicked– reprising a bit of her role as Glinda. Hilty certainly set the bar high for the rest of the performers, but fortunately there are few things theater people love more than a good challenge.
Tituss Burgess, the force of nature that he is, had the crowd laughing and cheering in equal measure as he perfectly danced and sang his way through “Poor Unfortunate Souls” only to switch gears into “What’s Going On,” asking the audience to be sure to vote in this upcoming election and remember that black lives matter.
Corey Cott proved why his is a name to be remembered with an extraordinary setlist that begin with the Pokemon theme song and included jaw dropping renditions of “Gethsemane” from Jesus Christ Superstar and “Santa Fe” from Newsies– the show where Cott first got his start. Cynthia Erivo did not have a set of her own, but she was featured in Pasek and Paul’s and Jason Robert Brown’s set because her effortless singing and performing is truly something to behold. Most of the crowd knew the treat they were in for before the recent Tony winner even opened her mouth, and they gave her a standing ovation as soon as she walked out on stage.
Throughout the lineup, Criss would pop up to introduce an act or join in for a song. A huge Stranger Things fan, Criss asked two of the show’s stars Caleb McLaughlin and Gaten Matarazzo to join in the fun with a set of their own, each boy a Broadway performer in his own right (McLaughlin from The Lion King and Matarazzo from Les Miserables). They delighted the crowd with their talent and charm.
Criss also joined Todrick Hall for one of the less dance-filled numbers in his upbeat set. The two sang Hall’s song “Color” which they had quickly rehearsed in the stairwell beforehand, not that anyone could tell with how beautifully they sounded.
Criss brought the night to a close with a set that blew the crowd away. Personal highlights would be the performance of “Journey to the Past” from Anastasia with Liz Calloway, the original singing voice of Anya, and Criss’ performance of “Drive it Like You Stole it” which encouraged the crowd to see John Carney’s amazing movie, Sing Street. Criss clearly is an enthusiastic fanboy who wants to spread the word about some of the people and media he loves most.
It would be easy to go on and on about all the performances at this years Elsie Fest, but luckily there will be plenty of recordings for people to watch and hear the immense talent of every performer and even the collective talent of the crowd. A small stage set up in the back of the venue was set up to allow for more talented Broadway stars to lead huge harmonious sing-a-longs between sets. Criss sang “Cabaret” at the start of the final set of Elsie Fest 2016 to remind everyone why the festival got its name in the first place:
“I think of Elsie to this very day.
I’d remember how’d she turn to me and say:
“What good is sitting all alone in your room?
Come hear the music play.
Life is a Cabaret, old chum,
Come to the Cabaret.”
Indeed, Elsie Fest has become the ultimate Cabaret to hear the music play. The theater community is a happier and more connected place because of it.