Review: The American Pops Orchestra tributes Aretha Franklin

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American Pops Orchestra
The American Pops Orchestra: Respect! A Tribute to Aretha Franklin – September 16, 2017


Back in August when the American Pops Orchestra announced their Aretha Franklin tribute show starring Michelle Williams, I unquestionably declared I was going. I would drive down to D.C. for the weekend – no problem. But who would come with me? Immediately, of course, I thought to ask Andrew. With him being the site’s resident Aretha expert and me being Michelle’s, it only made sense. So, I bought the tickets and we plotted the adventure.

I had no idea what to expect of the show. What would Michelle sing? And the other singers? How would this work? Nevertheless, I expected to be slain. Michelle’s voice and Aretha’s songs would be a magical combination, I was sure of it. I didn’t know the other singers, but expected them to be great as well (or I doubt they’d get the invitation).


Fast forward to showtime. We had the perfect seats at Arena Stage’s Fichandler Stage, just two rows from the orchestra and vocalists. The ladies rotated, each singing three songs before coming together as a group for the final two songs as an encore. In between, different members of the American Pops Orchestra also took turns delivering solo instrumental interpretations of Aretha songs as well. Maestro Luke Frazier did an excellent job, providing beautiful arrangements for the classic Aretha songs he chose for his American Pops Orchestra to perform.


Being the headliner, Michelle was the last to perform in each rotation. All of the ladies were amazing, but it was almost as though they were put in the order of who would slay me most, from level 1 to level 5. For example, Bria killing “The Night Time is the Right Time” on vocal and trumpet, followed by Moya’s “I’m In Love” and then Michelle’s “Since You’ve Been Gone” in the second rotation. However, the first rotation left me shook because Michelle came out of the entrance that was literally right next to where we sat. I had NEVER been so close to her while performing, and it was such an awesome experience. She delivered run after run, as you’d expect, and strutted around interacting with the crowd like the superstar she is.


My favorite moments of the night came at the end, though. Michelle came out and gave an awe-inspiring performance of “Natural Woman,” showing off her immense vocal talents. It was so good that I need a studio version pronto. Or, at least, a television performance of it so we can have it on MP3. After that, all of the performers joined Michelle on the stage for an amazing group performance of “You’re All I Need to Get By,” followed by “Think.” It was great to see all five of the women standing there together, tributing the Queen of Soul with the amazing American Pops Orchestra. It was such a powerful moment, filled with positive vibes and powerful vocals. Indeed, it was a beautiful way to end the show.



Afterwards, we attended the post-show reception to live our best lives and mingle with the stars of the show and the American Pops Orchestra. Michelle was friendly and warm as always, chatting with us for most of the evening and introducing us to some of the people involved in the show. We shared countless laughs together. It was also great to meet the other performers, Moya, Ariana, Bria and Nova, all of whom were gracious and kind. As well, it was such a pleasure to chat with Maestro Luke Frazier, who gushed about his love for the divas with us (both the singers who performed, and our other favorites), and even gave us some helpful tips of what to do for the rest of our night in D.C. Overall, it was such a lovely, worthwhile experience. Here’s hoping they take my suggestion for Mariah Carey tribute next, and I’ll surely return to D.C. to cover it!


As a devoted Aretha Franklin fan and scholar, I take Aretha’s music and all interpretations of it very seriously. I was very excited to hitch a ride down to DC and see what this group of women and orchestra would do with my Queen’s music. Safe to say, the American Pops Orchestra did their due diligence. The Orchestra enlisted the help of Michelle Williams, Moya Angela, Nova Payton, Ariana DeBose, and Bria Skonberg to properly pay homage to the one and only Ms. Franklin.

The first thing I noticed and appreciated, was American Pops Orchestra Maestro Luke Frazier’s bold move to carry out the show without background singers, when Aretha’s music leans so heavily on those additional vocals. However, the songs were arranged to include those parts, typically with the strings or the brass. It presented these classics in a beautiful change of pace. (Also, Nova is a DC native and her family attended the show and started singing backgrounds from the audience with harmonies and all, which was amazing and hysterical all in one swoop).


It’s safe to say that Moya was the night’s vocal MVP. She described herself as a big-voiced diva who was inspired heavily by Aretha and Aretha’s style, and that was right on the money. Her voice is massive, and as the show progressed, especially on her latter two selections “I’m In Love” and “Young, Gifted, & Black”, she let LOOSE. Portia reads the papers, but Moya sangs the songs (if you don’t get that, look up Moya on 30 Rock).


Hearing Michelle sing Aretha was a true treat. I’ve been a Destiny’s Child fan since 10 (shout out to that Divas 2000 performance). Prior to the show I put together a dream-list of songs I’d love to hear her sing. I was 1 for 8 (Hint: Michelle, those could be a fabulous EP moment down the road, just for laughs). Her “I Say A Little Prayer” was holy as I expected and she gave a great reading of “Since You’ve Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby). Most notably though was her cover of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” The way she phrased “feel like a natural woman” each time she concluded the chorus gave me chills. It was unique, silky, and complimentary to the song and arrangement.


First of all, Nova has some serious pipes. She is the resident DC-born diva and she did her thang. Did I mention that she’s very pregnant (due in 6 weeks) and slayed both vocally and visually (her sparkly, eye-catching “gowns, beautiful gowns” *Aretha voice*)?! She sang the HELL out of “A Change Is Gonna Come” and gave a beautiful reading of “Day Dreaming”.


Tasked with opening the show and tackling 3 of Aretha’s best-known hits, Ariana had her work cut out for her. She also has a voice very different from Aretha’s, but she put a great spin on each one, especially the seminal “Ain’t No Way”.



One of the biggest surprises of the night came from Bria Skonberg. She first descended down the steps, trumpet in hand, playing “Spanish Harlem”, beautifully. The surprise arrived at her second performance of “Night Time Is The Right Time”, but this time, she sang. She really dug into those “baby”‘s! that we all know so well, especially from the Ray Charles version, and also did her due diligence with the Stevie Wonder-penned “Until You Come Back To Me”.


After the show, we got to spend some time with everyone involved in the American Pops Orchestra event during a small reception. I took a little poll of everyone’s favorite Aretha song, and “Day Dreaming” was the clear favorite amongst the ladies and Maestro. “Until You Come Back To Me”, “Think”, “Ain’t No Way”, “You’re All I Need To Get By” and “A Natural Woman” were all mentioned as well.

American Pops Orchestra – Aretha Tribute Set List

  1. Overture: Respect
  2. Chain Of Fools – Ariana
  3. See Saw – Nova
  4. Spanish Harlem – Bria
  5. The House That Jack Built – Moya
  6. I Say A Little Prayer – Michelle
  7. Angel
  8. Baby, I Love You – Ariana
  9. Day Dreaming – Nova
  10. Night Time Is The Right Time – Bria
  11. Rock Steady
  12. I’m In Love – Moya
  13. Since You’ve Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby) – Michelle
  14. Ain’t No Way – Ariana
  15. Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do) – Bria
  16. Bridge Over Troubled Water
  17. A Change Is Gonna Come – Nova
  18. Young, Gifted, & Black – Moya
  19. (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman – Michelle
  20. You’re All I Need To Get By – Michelle, Moya, Ariana, Nova, Bria
  21. Think/Respect – Michelle, Moya, Ariana, Nova, Bria
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