Well-Strung quartet: Eine klein song, eine klein dance

by Sheila Regan, Special to MPR
April 9, 2014

MINNEAPOLIS — Well-Strung, the boy-band-meets-string-quartet sensation featuring four young men who sing, play strings, and look exceedingly handsome make their Twin Cities debut on Thursday, April 10 at Illusion Theater for the first annual fundraiser of Call for Justice, an organization that aims to connect low-income people to legal services.

Well-Strung mix classical and pop music, with the four musicians showing off their ability to sing and play at the same time. They even add a bit of choreography, in a feat that must be seen to be believed. The New York Daily News calls them "the hottest things with a bow since Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games."

The group was born in 2010, when producer Mark Cortale happened upon violinist Chris Merchant playing on Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts. "I was absolutely mesmerized," Cortale said.

At the time, Merchant was also performing in a self-explanatory show called Naked Boys Singing, but would play on the street for extra money. A classically trained musician, he discovered theater late in college, and was pursuing an acting career.

Cortale, recognizing Merchant from Naked Boys Singing, got the idea that it would be incredible to put together a show that combined classical and pop music with vocals. He proposed the idea to Merchant a couple of days later, to which Merchant responded that instead of going solo, it would be even better if they put together a string quartet. "I thought that was a brilliant idea, and so we went from there," Cortale said.

Soon they brought on director Donna Drake, from the original company of A Chorus Line, as well as arranger David Levinson.

Meanwhile, Merchant was directed toward Daniel Shevlin, the cellist of the group, and then they held an audition in January of 2012 where they cast first violinist Edmund Bagnell and violist Trevor Wadleigh.

Singing and plucking is the hardest thing Merchant knows how to do, though it gets easier "once you get it in muscle memory," he said. "It's a different part of the brain."

For their costumes, the group dresses in black — as homage to a traditional string quartet — according to Merchant, with variations such as shorts, a black tucked shirt, a polo, or a tank top.

Merchant said his favorite thing about the group is that "there's something for everybody."

The event on April 10 is aimed at raising money for Call for Justice, which opened its doors in 2011. According to executive director Ellen Krug, the organization works to provide information and referrals for social service agencies. "We help social service agencies and nonprofits communicate with each other so poor people can get in touch with lawyers," Krug says.

Of their accomplishments so far, Krug points to helping two law firms adopting the Jeremiah program, which helps intergenerational poverty.

Krug has been practicing law since 1982. Formerly a trial lawyer, she went through a personal transformation, including a gender change, four years ago, and decided she wanted to do good in the world. With some very intense fundraising by some dedicated lawyers in conjunction with the Hennepin Bar Association and the Ramsey County Bar Association, as well as a grant through the Saint Paul Bigelow Foundation, Call for Justice raised a half a million dollars to get started. Now, Krug says, they are looking becoming sustainable, and intend to have fundraisers every year.

Thursday's event will be their first major fundraiser since their initial startup funding. Last fall, Krug knew she was going to have to start fundraising, and by happenstance she was on vacation in Provincetown in Cape Cod. Well-Strung was playing and she was delighted. "It's Mozart meets Kelly Clarkson," she said. "It's delightful to look at and to hear. Plus, they are not bad to look at either — they are pretty hunky." So she struck up a conversation with Cortale and the rest is history.

Krug said she's hoping to raise $50,000 for the organization's first fundraiser. "I'm confident we will sell out," she said. "Our goal is to get our name recognized. There are a lot of poor people who lose their homes, who are at risk for physical assault, who lose their families — all because they can't afford a lawyer, or don't know where to turn. Lawyers are really important."

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based writer. She writes frequently for the Twin Cities Daily Planet and City Pages, among other publications.

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