Empty seats never looked so good: Stanley, Kemble, Vezza and fans ‘Get Happy’ at MPAC re-opening, amid pandemic restrictions

Jerry Vezza, Grover Kemble and Rich Vezza at MPAC, Oct. 2, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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There were temperature checks at the door, distance markers on the floor, and row upon row of roped-off seats you couldn’t buy if you wanted to.

“At the candy concession, the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups were six inches apart from the Raisinets,” singer Brynn Stanley observed from the stage of the Mayo Performing Arts Center on Friday.

Grover Kemble at MPAC, Oct. 2, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Welcome to Pandemia, an upside-down world where performers are thrilled to play mostly empty halls, and the brave souls in the lonely canyon are delighted to be there.

Get Happy was the theme for this momentous show. Momentous because it was the first indoor concert for the Morristown theater — indeed, New Jersey’s first indoor concert, according to Kevin O’Brien from the State Council on the Arts–since the pandemic lowered the curtain almost seven months ago.

Video highlights from MPAC reopening:

The velvet-voiced Stanley and a band led by ageless jazz guitarist Grover Kemble (blaming a sore back on his stone tablet birth certificate) and note-perfect pianist Jerry Vezza brought swinging vibes to a gathering, so intimate, the musicians practically were on a first-name basis with the customers.

Brynn Stanley at MPAC, Oct. 2, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

In fact, they were.  The audience included Stanley’s parents and Paul Fessock of Scotch Plains.

“I hear Brynn Stanley’s playing, I show up,” Fessock said.

It felt something like Stanley’s cozy Saturday evening streams from her Somerset County home–with a larger living room, better production, and a standing ovation at the end.

Grover Kemble and Brynn Stanley at MPAC, Oct. 2, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Friday’s ensemble, which included Hal Slapin on bass and John Vourtsis on drums, mixed snappy arrangements of American Songbook standards with tunes by the Beatles, Ray Charles and Kemble.

Highlights of the 90-minute set included spot-on harmonies by Kemble and Stanley on the Everly Brothers’ Let It Be Me; and Stanley, accompanied by Vezza’s soulful piano, in a from-the-heart rendition of Charlie Chaplin’s Smile.

Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin. Click/hover on images for captions:

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Gov. Murphy’s Executive Order 183 limits the size of indoor gatherings. For the 1,300-seat Mayo center, 150 is the max.  Get Happy drew about 50 people, with another 70 or so  paying for a livestream at home, in a benefit for the theater.

Despite a cash infusion from the first round of the Paycheck Protection Program, the nonprofit has been forced to furlough much of its staff, while experimenting with outdoor concerts, limited movie screenings and online events to stay afloat.

“We are just over the moon” to bring back live music, said MPAC President Allison Larena, expressing hope that the community will rally once more to rescue the theater, as it did in the 1990s to restore the crumbling 1937 movie palace.

Kevin O’Brien of the NJ Council on the Arts and CEO Allison Larena at MPAC, Oct. 2, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

That extraordinary campaign created a showplace for Ringo Starr, Tony Bennett, the late Natalie Cole, and many other world-class acts. Pre-coronavirus, MPAC presented more than 200 shows a year, generating an estimated $15 million annually for area restaurants and businesses.

In addition to wearing masks, maintaining safe distances, and submitting to temperature screenings, patrons on Friday were required to sign a hold-harmless waiver — just in case.

Tom McLaughlin, a Morristown resident in the securities industry, said he felt “zero” trepidation about venturing inside.

Jerry Vezza at MPAC, Oct. 2, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“Everything was taken care of, I never felt at risk,” said McLaughlin, a longtime Jerry Vezza fan.

“It’s just amazing to hear live music, and to see people out again in Morristown…I can’t wait to get back in the world.”

These long months have tested even the sunny Stanley. But pandemics don’t last forever, she promised.

“It’s going to take awhile, but we’re going to get through it.  In the meantime,” she said, as Vezza vamped the opening chords to Smile, “I’d like to just spread a little more kindness to everybody.  And what better way to do that than to smile?”

That’s a good start.

MPAC heads back outside with drive-in concerts at the Rockway Townsquare Mall on Oct. 9 (Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes) and Oct. 10, 2020 (Almost Queen). Then, it’s back inside 100 South St. for limited-capacity concerts on Oct. 16 (The Nerds) and Oct. 24 (The Ultimate Donna Summer Tribute). See MPAC’s website, or call 973-539-8008 for tickets.

‘THIS ROW IS NOT AVAILABLE’: Social distancing at MPAC, Oct. 2, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Hey, is that Erin Pach behind the glass-protected bar? MPAC, Oct. 2, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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