Local actress/singer/designer Sandra Huntsman, in reference to how she had spent a recent evening, posted on Facebook, “Oh nothing. Just sang with Barbra Streisand.”
She kidded not.
Huntsman was one of 60 Las Vegans from the Desert Angels Choir who backed up the diva during two numbers at her Nov. 2 MGM Grand Garden concert.
It was a climactic moment: Streisand, the Il Volo trio, trumpeter Chris Botti, Babs’ son Jason Gould, violinist Caroline Campbell, a 30-member orchestra and the five dozen backup vocalists rhapsodizing Leonard Bernstein/Richard Wilbur’s magnificently majestic “Make Our Garden Grow” (from “Candide”) and Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim’s “Somewhere” (from “West Side Story”). I wrote in my review, with no fear of overstatement, that the soaring segment offered a fleeting glimpse of what heaven must be like.
So how did locals get to sing with the top-selling female vocal artist of all time?
It’s impossible to talk to choir founder Michelle Johnson without her gushing. The local entertainer – and Broadway performer and Strip backup and corporate events organizer and Yale graduate – organized her group about 10 years ago. She’s watched it escalate in numbers (now around 100) and reputation.
“I don’t know how or why, but Barbra’s people called me directly,” she says. “Usually they have school choirs backing her up, but they decided to go with us. The vocalists are seasoned professionals, but with Streisand everyone went crazy. She’s not just a performer, she’s a legend. Most of us spent our lives emulating her. I never thought this would happen. It just didn’t seem probable. When I got the call, it was, like, if you can imagine, Jimi Hendrix calling someone up to give him a guitar.”
Johnson admits that she and her colleagues had to sign a confidentiality agreement promising not to say anything about Streisand to the press. But she did let this slip: “Streisand did thank all of us on stage while we sang and she was very gracious.” (Columnist’s plea: Please, Barbra, don’t sue the Desert Angels.)
Johnson enjoys watching how professional singers who are primarily soloists are often eager for another kind of experience.
“It requires a retirement of the ego and can be very healing,” she says. “When you’re a soloist you’re usually, through no fault of your own, in a narcissistic zone. You don’t have much choice but to be self-absorbed. When you’re just part of a unit, with different kinds of people working together to produce an incredible sound, it’s very empowering.”
Desert Angels specializes in uplifting music, what some might call gospel, but not necessarily religion-oriented. Johnson describes it as “music meant to make you a better human being.”
Based on what I heard at the Streisand concert, Johnson’s dead-on. The emotionally rich “Make Our Garden Grow” collaboration made me want to be nicer to people. I’ll do my best, Michelle, but I can’t make any long-term promises.
CORRECTION: I made two whopper name-spelling mistakes in a Tuesday review of Las Vegas Little Theatre Studio’s “Early One Evening at the Rainbow Bar & Grille.” The director is David Ament, and the actor playing Willy is David McKee. The show continues through Sunday (lvlt.org).
Anthony Del Valle can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.