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Travels with Bunbury: Branson is mid-America at its best!
Posted By Brandon Reid On December 15, 2010 @ 5:00 am In Online Exclusives | No Comments
By Bill Beard
I had never been to Branson, Mo. I had never even wanted to go to Branson. I grew up in Nebraska farm country, with a banjo-picking dad and a fiddle-playing uncle. We had hoe-down parties every Saturday night, and we kids hid out upstairs somewhere and played games; our favorites were spin the bottle and post office, especially if teen dream Nellie Darling was wearing that pink mohair sweater. [And yes, that was her real name!] Since that time, the whole country music scene has been out of my interest range.
And, of course, having been a theater and music critic for the past 40-plus years, I was skeptical about even visiting Branson, “America’s home of country western entertainment!”
But how very wrong I was! Branson has almost any sort of music…and theater…and entertainment for every taste almost 24 hours a day. So, I selected a variety of performances, trying to get a broad spectrum of shows to compare.
Certainly the icon of Branson performers is the famous violinist, Shoji Tabuchi. His show is one of the longest running in town, and is a traditional “must-see” for any tourist. He surrounds himself with an ensemble of young, vibrant singer-dancers, dresses the entire performance with beautiful costumes, elaborate stage settings and spectacular special effects; e.g., the big Mardi Gras sequence and the Broadway numbers. But it is Shoji, the man himself, who is the icon; he is the ultimate performer—the perfect example of the star.
The solo artist I chose was a vibrant and versatile singer, George Dyer, billed as “….easily one of the finest tenors in the world”; and indeed, he was. He filled two hours with everything from Josh Groban to Andrea Bocelli, his basically opera-trained voice proving just as capable with Sinatra-like crooning to pop rock, along with audience-pleasing humor and involvement. He charmed three ladies from the audience on stage, and later brought up two “good old boys” and had them singing the lyrics of “You Are My Sunshine” opera style with him, to the tune of “O Sole Mio.” Let’s face it. That’s a great audience involvement bit.
Actually, Branson has lots of fantastic tenors; one of the best shows being called The Twelve Irish Tenors. Again, these guys, each one claiming and describing their Irish heritage, offered music from every genre and era, in solos, small ensembles and much of the program being sung in fabulous harmony arrangements by all 12 singers. But further, they were all excellent dancers, in particular, tall, good-looking Jay McManus, with his long blond hair; and the lady-killer handsome Steven Hamilton. Standout show-stopper was the aria “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot, sung by the magnificent Jonathan Hill.
The only dinner theater I tried was the famous Branson Belle Showboat, the largest paddle boat on a land-locked lake; huge and beautiful. Food was good and service fine. The entertainment featured a lively combo with four singer-dancers, whose best number was called “29 Songs in 10 Minutes,” with quick costume changes and terrific staging. But the highlight of the evening was the hilarious comedy work of ventriloquist Todd Oliver and his three “talking dogs.” Uproariously funny!
Certainly one of the most unusual performances in Branson is presented by the versatile Knudsen Brothers (actually six of 10 brothers) whose show is called simply: Six. Referred to as an “orchestra-of-human-voices,” these Branson Entertainers-of-the-Year Award-winners are justly praised for their astonishing vocal ranges and pure harmonies, but further for the fact that, without any instrumental back-up at all, they use their six beautiful but robust voices to also produce rhythmic percussion, toe-tapping bass and various other instrumental replications to produce what one would swear was a full band. Add to that their hysterical wit and humor and some of the cleverest choreography around, and you get a fantastic evening.
But there are several “family” groups in Branson; and one of the very top shows in town also features brothers, seven of them, plus one gorgeous sister; and they’re going into their 20th smash hit season. It’s the Haygoods! Their press says, “Hey, these guys are Good!”, but that’s definitely an understatement; and the whole production is under the guiding hand of “Dad” Haygood, obviously an inspiration to his family and to anyone who approaches him in the lobby after the show.
In spite of the fact that I claimed earlier I didn’t like country music (and the Haygoods’ show certainly springs from country roots), I loved their concert. All eight of these talented siblings sing, play and dance expertly. They all play multiple instruments, more than 20 among them, from fiddles (all eight of them) to guitars, keyboards, percussion, reeds and brass, and to top it all, the sister even plays the harp. The Haygoods should absolutely be one of the first shows you see as soon as you arrive in this country music mecca called Branson. [By the way, to see how wonderful and crazy this family really is, just go online and bring up: www.youtube.com/user/THE HAYGOODS , but watch to the very end.]
There are dozens of great shows in this town. It would make a fantastic little holiday trip over the Christmas-New Year’s break for families, couples—or anyone!
Just go online: “Branson Special Deals,” or phone 800-785-1550 for the Tourist Board.
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