Review: The American Pops Orchestra ‘Coat of Many Colors: The Music of Dolly Parton’ at Arena Stage

Dolly Parton's songs were brought to life by Joan Osborne, Garrett Clayton, Nova Payton, Morgan James, Rita Castagna, Jess Eliot Myhre, and Neyla Pekarek.

Luxurious! No rags here, only riches. Luke Frazier, the Pops’ magnificent maestro, once again wove a rich tapestry of talent to compose APO’s Coat of Many Colors: The Music of Dolly Parton. If you haven’t seen a Pops show, you’re missing out on an elevated experience that DC is lucky to have.

Nova Payton and Garret Clayton. Photo by Kevin Parisi.

One of the golden threads that tied this Coat together was the set production, including the orchestra members’ costumes. Covering the floor was green AstroTurf, suggestive of the bluegrass music of Dolly’s humble roots. Patchwork quilts covered the banister along the orchestra well, and all orchestra members wore plaid shirts. Bassist Greg Watkins even wore a straw hat, impressively doffing and donning it each time he changed from bass to guitar. Off to one side of Maestro Frazier’s podium sat a straight-backed rocking chair and a folding table.

Recording and movie stars Joan Osborne and Garrett Clayton, and local superstar (it’s in her name and her voice) Nova Payton bejeweled the musical garment, making it perfectly fit for a tribute to the “Queen of Country,” Dolly Parton. Adding lavish variety to the Pops’ orchestral creation in the form of twangy, true-to-Dolly’s-bluegrass-roots and as-big-as-her-hair vocals, were Morgan James, Rita Castagna, Jess Eliot Myhre, and Neyla Pekarek.

The song selection included some of the best of Dolly’s 3000 songs, including her first Top 40 hit, “Dumb Blonde,” sung by Morgan James with her sultry, twangy-as-a-Smoky-Mountains-banjo voice. James added flair to her rendition of the gender-stereotype-breaking hit by whipping off her jacket, draping it over the rocking chair and sitting in it as she belted out the lyrics, “Just because I’m blond/Don’t think I’m dumb/’Cause this dumb blond ain’t nobody’s fool.”

Dolly’s music often hearkens of angels and her voice has been called angelic. Nova Payton, in a flowing white column dress, nearly floated onto the stage with wings unfurled while singing a heaven-sent spiritual medley, “Comin’ For To Carry Me Home/What a Friend We Have In Jesus/How Great Thou Art,” that rendered the audience into an awestruck standing ovation. Payton had the sweetest range from the lowest, slowest lows of “Sweet Chariot” to the mountainous peaks of “Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee…” Brava, Nova!

Garrett Clayton, “lookin’ better than a body has a right to,” couldn’t help but sizzle while singing Dolly’s wistful hit “Here You Come Again.” His charisma coupled with his clear blue eyes and voice convinced us that, “All you gotta do is smile that smile/And there go all my defenses.”

APO conductor Luke Frazier and Joan Osborne. Photo by Kevin Parisi.

The exceptional elements of this production are almost as numerous as Dolly’s hits. For instance, flutist Brittany Foster, harpist Kate Rogers, and cymbalist Jeremy Yaddaw’s sweet accessory to Nova Payton’s soulful outpouring of “I Will Always Love You;” Joan Osborne’s Dolly-inspired style, wearing fit and flare dresses and piling her blond hair up high on her head while she clearly and pleadingly sang “White Limozeen;” Luke Frazier’s intermittent quips, like, “From the Church to the Gutter – that’s Dolly for you,” alluding to the wide span between Nova Payton’s spiritual trio immediately followed by Garrett Clayton singing “All I Can Do;” Neyla Pekarek playing the cello and singing Dolly’s clever 1999 hit, “The Grass is Blue” in which she uses paradoxical phrases to portray a broken heart: “I can’t make it one day without you/Unless I pretend that the opposite’s true…The sky is green/And the grass is blue;” the amazing voice control by the lovely Jess Eliot Myhre; and the NextGen 2019 winner Rita Castagna lingering on the last note of “Heartbreak Express” with the throaty length of Etta James.

Dolly often said to “Dream it on through,” and the closing hit was a manifestation of that sentiment. All the performers made a melodious mosaic out of Dolly’s iconic anthem of class and gender inequality, taking turns singing parts of the number one hit single, “9 to 5.”

What a way to spend the evening! APO took that “cup of ambition” and poured it out for DC.

Running Time: 110 minutes, with no intermission.

The American Pops Orchestra Coat of Many Colors: The Music of Dolly Parton played one night only on September 21, 2019, at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. For information on future American Pops Orchestra events go online.


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