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From London's West End to Branson: 'The Simon and Garfunkel Story'

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(Poster design courtesy http://www.thesimonandgarfunkelstory.com/)
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"The Simon and Garfunkel Story," currently touring the USA and Canada, comes to Branson's Mansion Theatre November 26 and 27.

It debuted in the West End Theater district in London, it's been seen in some 50 countries worldwide, and they're currently touring the USA and Canada with this show: “The Simon and Garfunkel Story.” It comes to the Mansion Theater for the Performing Arts in Branson on November 26 and 27. I talked by phone with Ralph Schmidke, General Manager of the production.

Just from watching the videos online, both on YouTube and at http://www.thesimonandgarfunkelstory.com, it’s honestly pretty astounding to hear how successfully the performers in this touring production evoke both the individual vocal sound and the harmonies of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Schmidke agreed. “It’s been a pleasure to work to bring this show over to North America.” While it debuted in London’s West End in 2014, Schmidke first saw “The Simon and Garfunkel Story” at a dinner theater in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada in the fall of 2016. He described himself as being in the “age bracket” that would have been most heavily influenced by Simon and Garfunkel’s music. “Musically it was captivating. But its importance to me was (in) the actual emotion coming out of the people who were sitting there listening to the songs—singing along, laughing, crying. It was a very emotional evening, and from that point forward, I was eager to work with the creator, and my co-producer now, on bringing ‘The Simon and Garfunkel Story’ to North America.”

The show’s creator and Music Supervisor, Dean Elliott, “was looking to find a partner to work with for the North American market, and he reached out to our other co-producer, Justin Sudds from Right Angle Entertainment, and the three of us met in Edmonton and decided to put a tour together for North America. And all I can say,” added Ralph Schmidke, “is everybody loves it, and I never get tired of going out to see it.”

“The Simon and Garfunkel Story” is not a typical narrative play—rather, it’s a concert-style theater show that presents, Schmidke said, “the lives of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel in chronological order, from the time they were school buddies. It takes you from their beginnings to the end, with just a weaving of some factual information that most people, let alone Simon and Garfunkel fans, wouldn’t know. And what we hear from people exiting and feedback that we've been getting is, yes, everybody knows the music, but didn't really know everything that transpired in the time from when they were in school to the Central Park concert.” The show takes viewers musically from the duo’s beginnings, performing under the names of “Tom and Jerry,” all the way through their 1960s successes; the dramatic split up in 1970; and concludes with a taste of their famous 1981 reunion concert in Central Park in New York.

Ralph Schmidke told me there are two pairs of performers playing Simon and Garfunkel on this current North American tour, “just to divide the workload.” He said he wasn’t certain, but thinks the UK production utilizes two different pairs of performers as well. “Touring in the UK is a lot different than it is in North America,” he pointed out, mainly because there is a far smaller geographical region to cover. “They don't tour with a sleeper bus. They headquarter themselves in a central location and dart out for 60 miles in either direction for a week. They can play five shows in a week without having to get a tour bus. Whereas our distances are so much further apart getting from market to market, that we travel with a tour bus. And we kind of break the tours up into segments so that everybody, if they want to go home and live their normal life, they can, and then come back out and do four to five weeks, and then go home again. Some of the players prefer to stay through the whole tour. They love being on the road. Our guys in the band, they love being on stage with their fellow band mates in this show.” Audiences will understand why, Schmidke said, when they see the show. “They're having fun! They're young, they are amazing musicians and they are amazing singers. And that's what really makes this show so popular. The songs of Simon and Garfunkel, performed in the manner that they do, is pleasing and very rewarding.”

Ralph Schmidke agreed with me that it’s amazing the production team was able to find so many different pairs of singers who could so well embody the voices and performing styles of Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon—even physically, as the performing pairs include one dark-haired individual playing Paul, and a taller blond singer to portray Art. The challenge must have been especially daunting because the sound of Simon and Garfunkel is so familiar to a vast worldwide public.

“Well, it isn't easy, that's for sure—and in many ways,” he said. The Art Garfunkel character must be able “to sing the up and down harmonies with Paul Simon,” and the person playing Simon has “to be able to finger-pick the guitar like Paul Simon, and be able to sing with that Paul Simon style. It just doesn't happen in everyday life that you find a dozen of them on the street corner,” Schmidke admitted. “You have to look long and hard, and they spend hours harmonizing even before they get on stage with the band to rehearse. We take a lot of time and effort, because we want to do Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel justice when we're doing these shows. Those two voices are something to marvel. It's just hard to imagine. But when you hear them in rehearsals, and when they're working with Dean (Elliott) and getting the harmonies right, it's magic. The hairs on my arms are standing up just talking about it, and I'm sure the people in Branson will agree once they see the show.”

In addition to the two leads representing Simon and Garfunkel and the four-piece backup band, “The Simon and Garfunkel Story” utilizes state-of-the-art video projections to provide historical context to the songs and the narrative of the duo’s partnership. However, Schmidke said, “we don't dwell on the relationship of Paul and Art. There's so much good music to celebrate--we're not interested in trying to detail what happened in their relationship. That's between them, that’s their business. We're there to celebrate the music and what it's meant to people—and still means to people. You know, when you get three standing ovations during ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ I think you're doing something right.” That’s three standing ovations not AFTER the song, but DURING the performance of the song!

There are also plenty of wardrobe changes during the show that will provide a twinge of nostalgia to anyone who lived through the 1960s, especially anyone who saw Simon and Garfunkel perform on TV or in person and saw them wearing similar outfits during their performances. Ralph Schmidke said the producers have tried hard to get the look “right,” to “try to mimic it as closely as possible. Again, they're iconic in the way they look.” He reiterated that they haven’t tried quite as hard to find visual lookalikes for the two musicians; rather, the emphasis is on the correct vocal sound. “It’s about the proper guitar playing, it’s about the harmonizing. And the rest of it looks after itself.”

Branson audiences on November 26 and 27 will see Taylor Bloom portraying Paul Simon and playing lead guitar. Schmidke called him “a wonderful performer and a wonderful guitar player.” Playing Art Garfunkel is Ben Cooley. Both are from the New York metro area. “And the (backup) band is unbelievable. Most of the band members are from the San Diego-Los Angeles area.

“It's a pleasure to be able to work with these young men, and allow them to go out there and play the music that people want to hear,” Ralph Schmidke concluded.

Performances of “The Simon and Garfunkel Story” at The Mansion Theatre, 185 Expressway Lane in Branson, are Friday and Saturday November 26 and 27 both at 7:30pm. Tickets range from $40 to $65. For information, call (417) 385-1118 or visit www.themansiontheatre.com.

Randy Stewart joined the full-time KSMU staff in June 1978 after working part-time as a student announcer/producer for two years. His job has evolved from Music Director in the early days to encompassing production of a wide range of arts-related programming and features for KSMU, including the online and Friday morning "Arts News." Stewart assists volunteer producers John Darkhorse (Route 66 Blues Express), Lee Worman (The Gold Ring), and Emily Higgins (The Mulberry Tree) with the production of their programs. He's also become the de facto "Voice of KSMU" in recent years due to the many hours per day he’s heard doing local station breaks. Stewart’s record of service on behalf of the Springfield arts community earned him the Springfield Regional Arts Council's "Ozzie Award" in 2006.