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The 'best of' Neil Diamond

The idea for a showcase of Neil Diamond songs for one of Camelot Theatre's musical spotlights came to singer Erik Connolly a couple of years ago.

"I really am in love with Diamond's music, and I think it will make a good show," he says.

When he shared his idea with Roy Von Rains Jr., the theater's artistic director jumped at the opportunity.

Connolly's role as the pop singer has its limitations. Connolly's vocal range is a high lyric baritone or low tenor, while Diamond's is classic baritone.

"I don't sound much like Neil Diamond," he says with a laugh. "I have the low range, but not the rasp he took on later in his career. I find using an edge on the voice is the right balance. His voice was really beautiful early on. When you think of his song 'Play Me,' you hear how beautiful his baritone sounded. That period in his career is closer to what I would like to accomplish, but the later Neil Diamond is unnecessary. It would actually be an inaccurate portrayal."

"Spotlight on Neil Diamond" previews Thursday, Aug. 10, opens Friday, Aug. 11, and runs through Sunday, Aug. 27, at Camelot Theatre, 101 Talent Ave., Talent. Curtain is at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Preview tickets are $22. All other tickets are $26 or $32. Tickets and more information are available at camelottheatre.org or by calling 541-535-5250.

While the show's band — guitarist Al Dinardi, bassist Steve Fain, drummer Tom Freeman and Ian McCarty on keys — will strive for original studio sounds, Connolly says the music will not be an exact replication.

"Otherwise we'd be bound for Las Vegas," he says. "If you go too far, you'd better be exact. If you're not moving that needle anywhere in that direction, then don't go there. We need to have some of that essence, some of that edge to the voice. We want to channel some, but not do a carbon copy.

"Diamond is one of the great singers. He didn't have a schooled technique, and he actually connected with what he sang. His voice was ingratiating, with a pleasing mellow edge."

Back-up singers Rose Passione and Kristin Calvin will join Connolly. Script is by Mail Tribune Editor Catherine Noah, music direction is by Michael Wing, and Presila Quinby directs.

Diamond transitioned from a songwriter to performer in 1966 when he signed with Bang Records — one of the many independent music businesses in the Brill Building in Manhattan. There, he recorded his '66 debut "The Feel of Neil Diamond" and its '67 "Just for You." His albums for Bang Records comprise some of his biggest hits: “Solitary Man,” “Cherry, Cherry,” “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” “Kentucky Woman,” “Thank the Lord for the Night Time,” “I’m a Believer,” “Red, Red Wine,” “The Boat That I Row,” “You Got to Me,” “Shilo” and more.

Those years, those songs, were the best for Diamond. His bright, lively pop tunes are balanced with unassuming and poetic ballads. It was the beginning of his career, and the music has a snap that still rings today.

"He was a Brill Building songwriter," Connolly says. "He wrote 'I'm a Believer' for The Monkees."

Back then, Diamond was a songwriter in a think-tank of others, including Burt Bacharach, Carole King, Neil Sedaka and others, who wrote songs for girl groups and teen idols of the early '60s. The creative culture became known as The Brill Building Sound.

Once he turned into a superstar, Diamond relied more on showmanship. He moved to Los Angeles and played to sold-out shows at the Greek Theatre.

"In the '70s, his songs became a little more commercial, such as 'Forever in Blue Jeans,' 'Coming to America,' 'Cracklin' Rosie,'" Connolly says. "He appeared on stage in sequins, with all the pageantry and the pyrotechnics. All that larger-than-life showmanship made him a deity of the rock arena. The music became drenched in that poppy commercialism. However, for all its poppy commercialism, I'll take 'Forever in Blue Jeans' any day because it's a great tune.

"This show has the best of both worlds," he says. "It's the creme de la creme. Diamond is a real observer of life, and he had to put it to music. He's underrated stylistically because his music doesn't have the sex appeal of some performers. He is much more a brilliant songwriter, brilliant musician and lyricist."

Back-up singers Kristin Calvin, left, and Rose Passione join Erik Connolly in Camelot Theatre's 'Spotlight on Neil Diamond.' [Photo by Steve Sutfin]