Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Happy Birthday Dionne!
The Phoenix Theatre Company
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's review of Daddy Long Legs

Renee Patrick
Photo Courtesy of We3
As many theatres across the country are struggling to reopen due to COVID, The Phoenix Theatre Company has hit upon a great way to offer concert and theatre productions while also ensuring they satisfy all state and local safety requirements. They've solved this problem by using the large courtyard of the Central United Methodist Church, which is located directly on the north side of Phoenix Theatre's parking lot, and staging all of their upcoming winter and early spring performances outdoors. With palm trees lining the perimeter, a large stage with professional lighting and sound equipment, and socially distanced pairs of Adirondack chairs dotting the courtyard, it provides an intimate and safe way to have live performances resume from Phoenix Theatre, after a nearly eight-month void.

First in their series of outdoor events is a 90-minute concert that features Phoenix jazz trio We3 (vocalist Renee Patrick, pianist Nicole Pesce, and violinist Suzanne Lansford), plus vocalist Diana Lee and three other gifted Valley musicians, in a concert entitled "Happy Birthday Dionne!" that celebrates the upcoming 80th birthday of legendary pop-vocalist Dionne Warwick. With crystal-clear acoustics and a selection of some of the most well-known pop tunes from the 1960s and '70s, performed by a stellar group of musicians, it makes for a lovely return to live performances.

Renee Patrick's vocal skills are exceptional and her delivery of some of Warwick's biggest hits are infused with emotion and passion. These include a dreamy "Déjà Vu," a biting "Don't Make Me Over," plus a bright and bouncy take on "I'll Never Fall in Love Again." Her performance of "Valley of the Dolls" is both melancholy and perceptive. There are also several moving moments in the concert, including a beautiful version of a song she said she feels we all need at this time, "What the World Needs Now Is Love."

The earthy-voiced Diana Lee delivers a few upbeat solos, including "Message to Michael" and "Say a Little Prayer," and joins Patrick on a salsa-influenced duet of the well-known Warwick hit "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" that Warwick re-recorded with Celia Cruz on her "My Friends & Me" album. Lee also backs up Patrick on a forceful "Walk on By" and an upbeat and warm "That's What Friends Are For" that gives each member of the group a chance to shine, including a nice harmonica solo from Lee.

Nicole Pesce has had a steady career performing in the Valley, including appearing for more than a decade as the house pianist at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, and her keyboard and piano playing skills are superb. Her passionate medley that features several Warwick hits, including "Alfie," "This Guys in Love," and "Promises, Promises," is a major highlight of the evening. Suzanne Lansford provides skillful and enthusiastic violin accompaniment as well as a few solos. The three men who join the ladies on stage are all accomplished musicians, with Greg Warner on drums, Mel Brown on bass, and Joe Garcia on percussion.

Dave Temby's sound design allows for every single lyric and musical note to be heard clearly, and Kristen Peterson's lighting and video elements are quite effective, including having Warwick album covers respective to each song being performed projected on the large screen behind the musicians.

The only downsides are a somewhat uneven and long story that Warner tells at the mid-point of the concert, about a car accident he was involved in while touring with Warwick in Australia, and the fact that it isn't until Pesce's solo medley, which follows Warner's story, that we get some context behind the title of the show. Waiting until over halfway in to let the audience know that Warwick's 80th birthday is a few weeks away and that's the reason why you're singing some songs to celebrate her special day is a bit odd. Also, it's somewhat surprising that Phoenix Theatre chose to reopen with a concert focused on the hit songs of a pop singer, as opposed to one that is musical theatre based and would be more in line with what they are known for as the largest producing regional theater in the Valley.

Fortunately, while, as far as I know, the members of We3 have never appeared in a Phoenix Theatre production, and they've only been performing together for the last four years, their connection to each other, and to the other musicians on stage, is excellent, as are their musical abilities. So, even if this concert may not be something that Phoenix Theatre would normally present on one of their in-door stages, having live performances back on the professional level that Phoenix Theatre is accustomed to presenting makes for a warm and welcome return.

Happy Birthday Dionne! runs through November 22, 2020, at The Phoenix Theatre Company's outdoor stage at Central United Methodist Church, located on the north side of the Phoenix Theatre's parking lot, at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling 602-254-2151