Hollywood is about to release the latest film version of “The Time Machine.” Perhaps it came to the Houston area early in the guise of “The Lawrence Welk Show,” which arrived this past week at the Verizon Wireless Theater in Bayou Place. Conducted by John Baylor, (husband of one of the famed Lennon Sisters, Janet Lennon) the show’s national tour is a popular favorite on “the Blue Hair Circuit.” The crowd at this performance was full of old-timers like Montgomery County’s own Bob Tabor, eager to hear the great Big Band sounds of a bygone era. The nicely dressed audience — some with wheel chairs and oxygen tanks—would not be disappointed. Many of the fans were devoted followers of the late Mr. Welk’s weekly television show. Even in Welk’s absence, the program continues as Public Broadcasting’s most widely syndicated television show on more than 120 stations nationwide. (Houston’s channel 8 on Saturday’s at 5 p.m.)
With Baylor at the helm, the fine 12-piece orchestra (dressed in sharp red blazers) began with Welk’s familiar opening theme, accompanied by the bubble machine that always highlighted the band’s signature “Champagne Music.” Sound levels were excellent, and never competed with the vocalists. With joyous enthusiasm they performed such numbers as “Say It With Music,” “Mexican Cab Driver,” and a terrific Overture to Act II of the show.
Featured performers from the original program came onstage with a rousing “That’s Entertainment.” They included:
- Ralna English– who looked more beautiful than ever, wore stunning outfits, and sang superbly, even without her former husband and singing partner, Guy Hovis. Wearing glamorous scarlet chiffon and sparkling jewels, she wowed the crowd with hits like “Green Eyes” and “Tangerine,” while adding some gentle Latin-style choreography. With “Wind Beneath My Wings,” she demonstrated an impressive vocal range with glorious high notes. Her smooth and touching “I’ll Be Seeing You” brought tears to my eyes. (The song has always reminded me of my late father.)
- Ava Barber– the good-humored Welk “country gal,” who opened with a fun-filled “Y’all Come.” A glittering (and ill-fitting) black velvet blouse did not prevent her from singing better than ever with songs like “Cry.” Her wardrobe improves when she sings “Gone At Last” in black tights and a shimmering, multi-colored shirt that Judy Garland would have loved. Then, in an elegant, flowered purple jacket and chic black cowboy boots, she offered a foot stomping “Rose of San Antone,”.
- Henry Cuesta– showed dazzling control and virtuosity on his clarinet during numbers like “New Orleans,” “Closer Walk With Thee,” and flawless renditions of Benny Goodman’s “Sing! Sing! Sing!” and Artie Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine.”
- Jack Imel– offered still more extraordinary virtuosity while singing, drumming, tap dancing and performing on marimba. His “Lover” was superb, and he took flight in the drum segment for “Sing! Sing! Sing!” But perhaps the highlight of the night was Imel’s extended tour de force tap dancing, while at the same time performing “Bye Bye Blues” on marimba. If Mr. Imel is not 80 he must be close. It was astonishing to see the energy, skill and hilarious comic timing of this near octogenarian! He stole the show, and the audience roared approval with several standing ovations. When the near breathless Imel quipped, “This is the part where I kill myself,” one could not help but worry. But before you could bat an eye, he returned to sing the poignant “Old Bones,” bringing sweet sincerity to lines like “I love life, I’d like to do it again!”
- Mary Lou Metzger– also looking and sounding better than ever, joined Imel to sing and dance “You’ve Gotta Have Heart.” In a pretty white dress with puff sleeves and rhinestones, she brings the youthfulness of a college cheerleader to “Everything Old is New Again,” “Oh, Johnny!” and “Ma, He’s Makin’ Eyes at Me.”
Other show highlights included the handsome and brilliant young accordionist, Tim Padilla. Recently acquired by the band to replace the famed Myron Floren, Padilla showed his breezy brilliance in a “Dizzy Fingers” that was technically and artistically wonderful. His “Beer Barrel Polka” was no less impressive. Joining the boyish Padilla for the “Waltz of the Flowers” was the group’s Russian Adagio dance team of Pasha and Ilona. In elegant Russian costumes, the couple gave a twirling performance of “Pennsylvania Polka” that looked as though it could win Olympic gold.
Led by Miss English, the full ensemble performed “God Bless America” in memory of the events of September 11th. It was a touching conclusion to a show that touched the hearts of many. One could almost feel Mr. Welk’s presence in the room.
(The Courier 3.3.02)