On Monday night at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, Aretha Franklin was being channeled by some of the Tampa Bay area’s best singers! You can’t duplicate one of the greatest artists ever, but they paid tribute to their idol with some of the most amazing performances seen anywhere. This show was so professionally well done it could have been on Broadway or L.A., but it was at the beautiful Manatee Performing Arts Center in Bradenton. Stone Hall with its superb sound and lighting was completely sold out. Randy Wind from WMNF Community Radio kicked the night off introducing the cast as they hit the stage running with the Blues Brother’s movie version of Franklin’s 1968 hit “Think”. Dr. Randall Morgan from Sarasota was a guest speaker giving the audience a lesson in the accomplishments of Ms. Franklin’s life. The show had two acts, starting with some of Aretha’s 1960’s – 1970’s vast catalog of hits.
Cece Teneal took “Never Loved a Man” to start things off with the solo performances. Shantal Norman followed with “Do Right Woman Do Right Man”. Sugar and Spice brought some wild energy with “Baby I Love You” and the rousing hit “Dr. Feelgood”.
Katt Hefner, producer and artistic director of the show, brought it with classic Aretha and “Chain of Fools”! Sarasota Post writer and local songstress Twinkle shined with the King, Goffin, Wexler penned, (You Make Me Feel Like) “A Natural Woman”. The Sarasota connection to Aretha was her producer Jerry Wexler who was a Siesta Key resident. Theo Valentin sang the Bacharach/David written “Say A Little Prayer” which was a hit for Aretha and also Dionne Warwick. Blues singer Lauren Mitchell performed a powerful three-song set with “See Saw”, “Good to Me”(As I am to you) which was written by Aretha and T. White and brought it home with a cover of The Band’s “The Weight”.
Brenda Watty paid homage to Aretha with the Ashford & Simpson written “You’re All I Need to Get By” and CeCe Teneal closed out the first act before the intermission with “Don’t Play that Song” and “Spirit in the Dark” which Aretha wrote solo. An incredible combination of performances and that was just the first act! There was also a stellar backing band which included bandleader Vincent Sims on lead guitar, jazz and blues pianist Bill Buchman on keys, Sarasota native bassist Johnnie Barker, James Vanardo on drums who is known to local Sarasota audiences for his playing with Dickey Betts among others. The horns were superior with Grammy recipient Butch Thomas on sax, trumpet master Ian Indorf and John Cooley on trombone who has performed at the Asolo and worked with Tony Bennett. Elicia Brown and Nina Skyy on supporting vocals brought beautiful harmony and amazing falsetto to the performances.
Act 2 started with Belinda Womack taking it to church with a stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace”. Joining the cast was YaYa Diamond with the Aretha/George Michael megahit, “I Knew You Were Waiting”, which got the crowd out of their seats. Brenda Watty kept it going with “Until You Come Back to Me”. One showstopper was the 1985 hit with Annie Lennox “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves” with Watty and Diamond teaming up and bringing it out into the audience! The sold out crowd was up and dancing and watching Watty captivate moving around the room in a flowing white gown. YaYa took on the 1998 “A Rose is Still A Rose” written by Lauren Hill. You may know YaYa from the Reverend Barry and the Funk Band that gigs around the Tampa Bay area.
There was a film performance by the Queen herself with “I Dreamed a Dream”! Aretha sang this at the inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993. A performance that even 25 years later is electric and shows why Ms. Franklin is the Queen of Soul. If you have never seen it you should, you can find it on YouTube. Katt Hefner asked the crowd for cell phone lights to make a powerful performance even more moving with her version of “Wholy Holy” a song written by the great Marvin Gaye, R. Benson and A. Cleveland.
No tribute to Aretha would be complete without her signature song “Respect” and it was the finale with the entire cast returning to the stage for a soul blowout! Singers were jammin’ together on verses and everyone joining in the chorus! A classy production from Katt Hefner, singers and musicians putting their heart & soul into top notch performances and an Aretha Franklin setlist, it doesn’t get better than that! Thanks for the music Aretha!
Photos courtesy of Vicky Sullivan / Rock the Lens Photography