It’s a gorgeous Wednesday, May 17, 2023 afternoon at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, NJ where an audience of over 6000 New Jerseyans ready themselves for a free Garden State Arts Foundation performance starring The Lettermen and comedian John Pizzi.
Garden State Arts Foundation VP Ron Gravino welcomes the crowd and thanks Live Nation Entertainment, the PNC Bank Arts Center production staff, GSAF executive director Cookie Santiago, Bob O’Brien and the GSAF volunteers, and the NJ State Troopers for their help in putting on today’s show.
Gravino introduces this afternoon’s opening act, comedian John Pizzi, announcing that Pizzi — a stand-up comic and ventriloquist — will star in an upcoming Netflix comedy special called Crossing the Line.
Pizzi takes the stage and gets cheers from the crowd when he reveals that although he currently lives in New Jersey, he was born in Brooklyn, NY. Entertaining the audience with jokes and magic tricks, the crowd reacts to Pizzi’s antics with giggles and loud guffaws.
Pizzi introduces the crowd to “the oldest man in the world” — his ventriloquist puppet, Uncle Smiley — who makes fun of audience members to their great delight. Although Smiley’s comments are based on the age, appearance, and nationality of a variety of audience members, Pizzi presents his humor in such a way that it makes fun of literally everyone so as not to offend anyone.
Pizzi introduces the audience to his puppet, Andy, a lovable bad boy with a no-holds-barred response to anything going on around him — for instance, after looking around at an audience comprised mainly of senior citizens, Andy exclaims, “Everyone is old here! Is this Florida?” The crowd is impressed when Pizzi performs “You’re the Best,” a parody of the Disney song, “Be Our Guest,” where he switches seamlessly between his own singing voice and Andy’s singing voice.
Pizzi has the crowd in stitches with his rapid fire repartee before selecting a volunteer from the audience to join him on stage. Once “Julio” takes the stage, Pizzi dresses him in a specially-designed baby monkey outfit.
He also gives “Julio” a special “big mouth” that is manipulated and voiced by Pizzi. “Julio” is especially funny when he sits on Pizzi’s knee and “sings” with him.
Pizzi ends his performance by acknowledging that although his act insults many different people in jest, everyone can enjoy his humor because, as he reminds them, “You’re all Americans who don’t take any s**t from anyone!”
During intermission, audience members comment on John Pizzi’s performance today. Exclaims Gloria from Tuckerton, “He was awesome!” Joanne from Jackson agrees, adding, “He was very funny!” Explains Barnegat’s “Julio,” who appeared on stage in the monkey outfit with Pizzi, “My name is actually Julius but, on stage, John Pizzi called me ‘Julio.’ I’m actually an artist who has stage fright, but I played along with him and it turned out to be a wonderful experience — I just loved it!”
Whereas Chris from Randolph insists, “John Pizzi was a lot of fun — I can’t wait to see his Netflix show!” Susan from Woodbridge acknowledges, “His jokes were clever. I haven’t laughed out loud like that in awhile!” adding, “At first, I was concerned people would be offended by his humor — I guess you have to expect that when you see a comedy show — but I liked it when he ended his act by reminding us that we’re all Americans.”
Following intermission, The Lettermen’s “two-man orchestra” — keyboardist Ken McKinney and drummer Bill Glenn — take their places behind their respective instruments. Then, The Lettermen —Rob Gulack, Donovan Tea, and Bobby Poynton — enter the stage to great applause.
Opening with an upbeat rendition of Andy Williams’ “More,” The Lettermen croon, “More than the greatest love the world has known,” in tight three-part harmony. Following up with Ruby and the Romantics’ “Our Day Will Come,” the trio trades off singing vocal leads before segueing into the Four Aces’ ballad, “Love is a Many Splendored Thing.”
Donovan Tea welcomes the crowd and thanks everyone for coming today. When an audience member holds up a Lettermen album for Tea and his stagemates to autograph, Tea jokes, “That’s a big CD!” promising “We’ll sign that later.”
After introducing one another, Tea, Poynton, and Gulack perform a medley of classic tunes including Elvis Presley’s “Memories,” Classics IV’s “Traces,” Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “Hurt So Bad,” and Paul Anka’s “Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” before launching into The Lettermen’s own 1969 hit, “Shangri-La.” Capturing the hearts of audience members, concertgoers happily sing along on song’s well-known “Your kisses take me/To Shangri-La” lyric.
Simple piano arpeggios and a straight-ahead drumbeat support lush vocal harmonies that crescendo on the trio’s rendition of The Vogues’ “Turn Around, Look at Me.”
The crowd cheers, and Tea explains that since 1961 when The Lettermen had their first hit record, their group’s signature sound has always been the result of having three lead singers instead of one lead singer who is accompanied by background singers. At this point, newest member Rob Gulack is featured as he performs a solo version of Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up,” dedicating the song to his mother in addition to all the other moms in the audience.
Following a medley of “The Way You Look Tonight,” The Lettermen’s own 1965 hit, “Theme from ‘A Summer Place,’” and Nat King Cole’s “When I Fall in Love,” Donovan Tea impresses on one of the highlight performances of the afternoon, a stunning rendition of “Portrait of My Love,” a song made famous by both Steve Lawrence and The Tokens. His resonant low baritone voice captivating the crowd, Tea holds an impressively long note at the end to enthusiastic cheers and applause.
Tea encourages music lovers to sing along on a medley of Climax’s “Precious and Few” and The Association’s “Cherish,” before he and The Lettermen perform an arrangement of Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “Goin’ Out of My Head” which starts softly and builds in intensity as audience members joyfully sing along on the song’s popular “I love you, baby/And if it’s quite alright” refrain.
Tea, Poynton, and Gulack make their way through the audience performing a medley of The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” Maroon 5’s “Sugar,” and Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” as they shake hands with fans in the crowd.
Concertgoers clap along on an upbeat arrangement of Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” and swing their arms over their heads side to side as they sing along to a “happy” medley of songs including Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” Blood Sweat and Tears’ “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” and The Turtles “Happy Together.”
Bobby Poynton announces, “These next three songs are movie tunes that we ‘Lettermen-ized’” as the trio launches into “Never Enough” from The Greatest Showman, “My Heart Goes On” from Titanic, and “You Will Be Found” from Dear Evan Hansen.
Poynton follows up by performing a solo version of Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” where his expressive tenor voice floats out over the crowd.
Acknowledging that The Lettermen just released their 77th album, Poynton and Co. perform Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” before introducing musical director/arranger/keyboardist Ken McKinney and drummer Bill Glenn to the crowd.
Audience members cheer and applaud for The Lettermen’s interpretation of “Over the Rainbow,” and Tea exclaims, “We hope we brought back some great memories!” as the group concludes with a stirring interpretation of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” which concludes with a standing ovation.
As music lovers make their way out of the amphitheater, several comment on today’s performance by The Lettermen. Exclaims Barbara from Union, “The Lettermen are at the top of their game!” Janice from Somerset agrees, adding, “Their voices are better than ever,” and Linda from Barnegat contends, “They have their old sound along with a whole new sound.”
Myron from Randolph suggests, “The Lettermen are collectively and individually outstanding,” and Joanne from Montville concurs, stating, “They are great both as a group and as individuals.” Chris from Randolph insists, “I liked the songs they played,” and Barbara from Easton, PA remarks, “They performed a great upbeat combination of tunes from different genres. I particularly enjoyed the ‘happy’ medley.”
Stefanie from Bloomfield acknowledges, “I’m here with my whole family today — my grandma was always a big fan of The Letterman — and I especially liked the Broadway tunes and the modern songs they did.” Joanne from Jackson declares, “Their harmonies were beautiful!” and Gloria from Tuckerton calls The Lettermen “Fabulous!” recalling, “I first saw The Lettermen in 1971 after my senior prom at the Waldorf, which is when my husband got to sing with them.”
Whereas Rosie from Lakewood insists, “I loved everything about this show — The Lettermen were excellent!” Mona from East Windsor asserts, “From start to finish this show was wonderful — I could have listened to The Lettermen for days on end,” before concluding, “Their song selection and three-part harmonies were pure perfection!”
For more information on The Lettermen, please go to thelettermen.com. To learn more about John Pizzi, please click on johnpizzi.com. For info on future Garden State Arts Foundation concerts at the PNC Bank Arts Center — including Cousin Brucie presents Herman’s Hermits starring Peter Noone, Tommy Roe, and the Soundtrack of Our Lives with Deborah Rennard and Al Sapienza on June 8 — please go to gsafoundation.org.
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