Between May 31 and July 1, 2018, Pam and I (Charlie) Horner took part in one of the most significant historical Rhythm & Blues music projects of the past 50 years – the making and running of the musical “Soul Harmony: The Story of Deborah Chessler, Sonny Til & the Orioles”. Having been friends with Sonny Til, Deborah Chessler and Johnny Reed and having extensively researched the Orioles and the origins of Rhythm & Blues vocal harmony for the past 40 years, it was a thrill to see this story brought to life on the stage of the Uptown Knauer Performing Arts Center, 226 N. High Street, West Chester, PA. I am proud to know that my research and interviews helped make this musical possible. I am honored that the writers and producers of “Soul Harmony” chose to give recognition to the work I’ve done to preserve the history of our music by including me in the musical. Act 1, Scene 1, opens with me interviewing Sonny Til on my radio program in 1980. The next to final Scene in Act 2 has me interviewing Deborah Chessler at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.
“Soul Harmony” is the story of how Rhythm & Blues vocal harmony came together in Baltimore in 1948, a collaboration of a young white Jewish songwriter (Deborah Chessler) and a black vocal group (the Orioles). The Orioles’ sound grew into a whole genre of music – Rhythm & Blues grew into Doo Wop, Rock & Roll, Soul, Motown and Hip Hop music. The Orioles and Deborah Chessler changed the face of American popular music.
“Soul Harmony” was written and produced by Michael Allen Harrison and Alan Berg. We first saw “Soul Harmony” as a workshop in Portland, Oregon, in 2015. There it won Portland Area Musical Theater Awards for Outstanding New Musical, New Song (“The Music In Me”), and Original Score. We (Classic Urban Harmony) helped bring the musical to West Chester PA’s Uptown! Knauer PAC where it opened on June 20 and ran ten performances. It was directed by Terence Kelley.
The lead roles of Deborah Chessler and Sonny Til were played in superb fashion by Monica Rodrigues and De’Sean Dooley. De’Sean is the real life grandson of Sonny Til. Both Monica and De’Sean are enormously talented at acting, singing and dancing. But this musical was loaded with talent. Vocally, Deborah Charleston, Anita Salley, Stacie Calkins and Joel Katz did an extraordinary job portraying characters like Faye Adams, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Ruth Brown and Buddy Clark. The “Orioles,” Michael Harmony Barnes, Javon Vincent, Kyle McLemore and Greg Watkins did an unbelievable job backing De’Sean Dooley. The five Orioles had never sung together prior to the first rehearsal. Three-and-a-half weeks later. they were sounding like the original Orioles, with even better choreography. All of the acting was spectacular, especially Lisa Dennett (as Deborah Chessler’s mom, Irene); Lee Cortopassi as Deborah’s abusive husband, Zunny); Matthew Robertson as Abe Schaeffer and Apollo Theatre owner Frank Schiffman; Morgan MacConnell as Helen Stern. Rafael Schneider played several roles including Howard Schaeffer, as well as served well as stage manager. Director Terrence Kelley also played the roles of “older” Sonny Til and Duke Ellington. Perhaps the biggest surprises to us, because we previously didn’t know they could act, were the amazing acting done by our friends Joel Katz and Ali Hackett. Joel stepped into the roles of radio dj Ray Carroll, record label owner Jerry Blaine, Arthur Godfrey and singer Buddy Clark. Ali Hackett assumed the role of radio dj Willie Bryant and electrified the audience. They combined with Stacie Calkins (later Deborah Charleston) on a break out Michael Allen Harrison song, “31 One Nighters,” a rehearsal video of which when viral on FaceBook. Dancers Hannah Kearney and Marissa Kaufmann were great in their roles as well as the many behind the scenes people like Kira Hastings, Sue Delano, Karla Green, Eli Green, Laurey Zoladz, the Soul Harmony Band (Michael Allen Harrison, Aaron Quarterman, Stephen Tipping, Kyle Tither and Michael Woods) and the tech crew led by Btydon Lidle. [Hope I didn’t leave anyone out.]
Pam and I had never done any prior acting, nor had we ever been involved in a professional musical or stage play. Initially, Joel Katz and I were cast in limited roles in “Soul Harmony” but our involvement soon expanded. Pam Horner and Joan Katz were added to join us in the dance scenes. Rehearsals for Soul Harmony were hard work. Everyone involved took a full month away from our lives and lived and breathed “Soul Harmony”. For us (the Horner’s and Katz’s) it meant checking into a West Chester PA hotel for the month of June. For others who’ve never experienced anything like this, it’s not just memorizing scripts. Every move is timed and choreographed. Running the musical means constant scenery and costume changes between scenes. At the Uptown, the dressing rooms are two flights down and across the hall. So if a quick costume change is needed, you have limited time to cross the dimly lit backstage behind the curtain, run down two flights of stairs and across the hall, change, and run back up the stairs before you are again needed. All this while you are avoiding colliding with other actors and the tech crew moving scenery around.
If all this sounds grueling, it is. But it is also so rewarding to hear that people in the audience were crying during the sad scenes and wildly applauding during the happy scenes. And nothing beats the excitement of stepping out on stage and nailing your lines or dance steps perfectly or taking your final bows to a five minute standing ovation.
Through all this, we have met and become friends with the most fabulous people. We’ve come to consider the cast and production team of “Soul Harmony” like family. We wish all of them much success in their careers. Who knows. Perhaps we’ll meet and work together again. There’s talk of “Soul Harmony” going on the road – Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Jersey and the Apollo Theatre have been mentioned. In the meantime, here are about 200 photos we took. We’ll be adding more professional photos of the musical when we receive them. Videos coming soon.
There are 5 pages of photos. You can click on any photos to enlarge and then use the left and right arrows to see others on that page. To see the other pages, return to this page and click “Next Page” under the gallery page. Enjoy!!!!