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Kennedy Center Concert Hall - Archive
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November 23 - 24, 2007
An Evening of Jerome Kern
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:45 - one intermission
Pops concert featuring famous Kern melodies and songs from Show Boat

Click here to buy the CD

Marvin Hamlisch leads the National Symphony Orchestra Pops through an evening featuring a concert version of Kern and Hamerstein's Show Boat. His a cast includes Rebecca Luker, who starred in the 1994 revival which earned her one of her three Tony Award nominations, and J. Mark McVey whose work as the Phantom of the Opera won him a Helen Hayes Award. Before they get to Show Boat, however, Hamlisch brings forward members of the orchestra to take the spotlight. They are featured in instrumental versions of three of Kern's big hits. Then Hamlisch leads the entire ensemble through a medley of other Kern hits. They also play the famous music that Hamlisch points out in his introductory remarks was the waltz that Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers danced to in the film Swing Time.

Storyline: In addition to a concert of the music of Jerome Kern -- "Waltz from Springtime," "The Last Time I Saw Paris," "Look For the Silver Lining," "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and a medley piece titled "Jerome Kern Tribute" -- the National Symphony Orchestra Pops performs an abbreviated version of the score from Kern's classic musical, Show Boat with four soloists, two choruses and three supporting actors.

Richard Rodgers, one of the twentieth century's two greatest melodists, would have probably considered missing this concert unthinkable since it is an evening of the music of the other greatest melodist, Jerome Kern.  Kern's music for Broadway enchanted Rodgers and inspired his own greatness and his music for Hollywood added to an incredible catalogue of musical marvels. Rodgers would not have been disappointed as to the quality of the melodies displayed in this all-too-short Pops concert, but he would have, as I did, wanted more.

The forty-minute "concert version" of Show Boat featured about eight minutes of pure bliss (the two times that Luker and McVey's voices blended and soared together in "Make Believe" and "You Are Love") and two solid vocal highlights (Clare Gormley's "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and Gregg Baker's "Ol' Man River). All together, eleven of the twenty-five major songs that made up the original score were performed, if briefly. It had to be abbreviated, the original score takes over three hours to perform in full. Broadway shows may have been longer then, but the creators knew they had some severe cutting to do when the opening night curtain of the out of town tryout at Washington's National Theatre didn't come down until 12:40 am. Still, it needn't have been this brief. There are riches, even in this shortened version. Luker's lovely soprano and McVey's distinctive, virile tenor blend deliciously and Baker's deep, resonant baritone sounds as if it were made for "Ol' Man River." The addition of snatches of dialogue from the script put the songs into enough context to make it clear just how good they are as dramatic scenes, giving Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics a frame that allows their genius to be recognized.

The pre-intermission work of orchestra and instrumental soloists seemed fairly routine, as if Mr. Hamlisch's real love of the evening was the music that ended the concert. His "Waltz in Swingtime" got the waltz part right but missed much of the swing. Of the members of the orchestra brought forward for solos, only Dave Detwiler and his trumpet really soared. Oh, but his elegiac solo on "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" was enough to make those eyes tear up from something other than smoke. Strangely, he was the only instrumental soloists not listed in the National Symphony Orchestra roster in the program. The program didn't credit the actors supporting the Show Boat material, but Laura Giannarelli was unmistakable as "The Lady on the Levy."

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May 31 - June 2, 2007
They're Playing Our Song - Again!
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:10 - one intermission
A Pops concert with standup comedy, a few solo songs and a twenty-minute sample of They're Playing Our Song 
v Includes some standup comedy on body function and sexual topics by Mr. Klein
Photography by Margot Ingoldsby Schulman

Price range $20 - $80

Click here to buy the CD

Marvin Hamlisch, conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra Pops, opens the evening with a bit of chit chat with the audience, including welcoming comments for children in the twelve to thirteen age bracket. Then he leads the orchestra in four numbers from his catalogue of movie and show music. With the audience well warmed up, he brings on comedian, actor, singer and harmonica player Robert Klein, who holds forth for half an hour on topics of colonoscopies, erectile dysfunction and other concerns of his generation. This is followed by a twenty minute intermission during which the parents of the twelve and thirteen year olds in the audience can try to explain what has just transpired.

Storyline: A short portion of the concert presents songs from the Broadway musical which told the tale of a successful composer of popular songs who teams up with an up-and-coming lyricist for a trial collaboration intended to produce five songs. They become romantically involved but all is not smooth sailing. Their different work habits create tension and he is jealous as she is unable to completely cut off her relationship with her former lover .

The abbreviated version of Hamlisch's score to the 1979 musical They're Playing Our Song which starred Klein and Lucie Arnaz, is what was advertised. That came not only after intermission, it came twenty minutes after intermission, actually, leaving just twenty minutes for what Hamlisch described in his introductory remarks as "our little show here at the end." Little show here at the end? They advertised it as the main attraction! As Stan Freberg used to say in the legendary Chung King Chow Mein commercials: "Lets have a little truth in advertising for a change." Of course, while were at it, we could have a little truth in reviewing, so I'll have to add to this diatribe that Ms. Arnaz was superb all through the second half of the program. She sang a set of five songs before they got around to They're Playing Our Song and each was a real gem. This lady can sing up a storm! Afterwards she was the best thing about the twenty minute - five song encapsulation of what had been a two-act show with a nine song score.

They're Playing Our Song featured a book by Neil Simon, who triumphed with Little Me, Sweet Charity and Promises, Promises. Clive Barnes said of the original production "Simon has gotten himself another odd couple even odder than the first" but others, like Walter Kerr, felt the book was the weak link in the chain and that the score by Carole Bayer Sager and especially Marvin Hamlisch was the strength of the show. Here we get some of the score and practically none of Simon's book, good or bad. From this you can't judge the book but you certainly can get a feel for the score, and it came across as both highly melodic and rhythmically inventive. Hamlisch conducted and also read (from 4" x 5" cards) small transition explanations to put the songs in context.

The National Symphony Orchestra Pops performed admirably with a mixture of charts arranged for Hamlisch at the piano or Klein or Arnaz at the microphone. Hamlisch's pianistic technique puts a premium on demonstrating how fast he can move his fingers rather than on the melodic value of the music, but since he composed most of those melodies, he certainly knows his way around their intricacies. Most pleasant was his theme from the movie The Swimmer, a prototypical lush and lovely sweeping Hollywood movie theme. The orchestra backed up Klein for the three songs incorporated into his standup routine including his big opening number "Colonoscopy" and a finale of hot harmonica licks as well as Arnaz's set of standards ("Blue Skies," "The Best Is Yet To Come") and Latin-tinged thrillers ("Cumbanchero," "Quiereme Mucho"). 

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September 15 - 17, 2005
National Symphony Orchestra Pops:
Brian Stokes Mitchell

Reviewed September 15
Running time 2:10 - one intermission
A marvelous evening of Broadway and American songbook standards with orchestra and combo

Brian Stokes Mitchell demonstrates a wide range both of voice and of style, and a consistency of charm in a concert backed by the full National Symphony Orchestra Pops and by a small jazz combo with just a soloist here or there plucked from the full orchestra. Through it all, he's not only impressive in his musicianship but in his concentration on the meaning of the thoughts in the lyrics of the songs he sings. This is a singing actor, and he doesn't leave his acting skills behind just because he's performing in concert. With an engaging personality, a marvelous musical instrument of a voice and the skills of a great actor, he puts on quite a show. 

Content: Brian Stokes Mitchell performs before the full orchestra for a selection of well known Broadway songs and with a small combo for four American standards. In addition, the orchestra performs a trio of suites and overtures from classic American musicals and the brass section performs alone on two selections.

When Mitchell first appears on stage, it is to sing a number of big, baritone numbers in the voice that has impressed in full productions and concerts over at least the past decade. He starts with Gershwin's "There's A Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon For New York" and "A Woman is a Sometime Thing" from Porgy and Bess and caps the first half of the evening with a dramatically fascinating performance of "Soliloquy" from Carousel. This song is really a one-act play all by itself and he turns in a fine piece of acting as well as marvelous singing, becoming the character of the carousel barker Billy Bigelow as he absorbs the news that he is going to be a father.

After intermission, Mitchell booms out "The Wheels of a A Dream" which he introduced in the great musical Ragtime, and he ends the announced material with "The Impossible Dream" which he has made something of a trademark ever since he sang it in the revival of Man of La Mancha. In between these big baritone-range standouts, Mitchell takes a bar stool and a hand mike and sits in front of a jazz combo for a set that demonstrates his skill in a tenor range. Whereas the amplification of his voice for the big baritone numbers seemed a trifle brittle, the close handheld mike yielded a richer sound and Mitchell proved his skill at using it to augment his performance.

As a Pops concert, the evening begins with the full sound of the large organization under Marvin Hamlisch performing the overture from Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific, a set of selections from the new Broadway show The Light in the Piazza for which Richard Rodgers' grandson Adam Guetel won this year's Tony Award for best score, and Robert Russell Bennett's Symphonic Picture from Porgy and Bess. The second half of the concert began with a fairly superfluous offering from the Washington Symphonic Brass including a loud and spirited all-brass rendition of "Swing Swing Swing" that didn't really (swing, that is).

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February 13 – 15, 2003
NSO Pops – Guest Artist: Kristin Chenoweth

Reviewed February 13
Running time 2 hours

Sometimes an orchestra concert with a guest artist gives more orchestra and less guest. Not this time. Those who attend specifically to hear and see Tony Award winner Kristin Chenoweth will come away feeling they got their money’s worth. They get a full sampling of her dazzling personality, humor, energy and talent. 

Storyline: A Valentine’s Day program has Chenoweth performing “Let Yourself Go,” “My Funny Valentine,” “The Girl in 14G,” “Daddy,” “Taylor, the Latte Boy,” “If You Hadn’t But You Did,” “Going to the Dance with You,” a medley of songs by Jerome Kern, and “My White Knight” and “Glitter And Be Gay” with the National Symphony Orchestra under Marvin Hamlisch. In addition, Hamlisch leads the orchestra and solos on the piano for “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “An Affair to Remember,” “Lara’s Theme,” “Out of Africa” and “As Time Goes By.”

Chenoweth, classically trained for opera but finding success in musical theater and popular concert material, exudes a sense of enthusiasm, good humor and genuine niceness that spreads from the stage to fill the entire hall, whether that space is the Ambassador Theatre on Broadway where she earned her Tony Award in You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown or the indoor/outdoor space for 7,000 at Wolf Trap or the more intimate recital hall of The Barns at Wolf Trap or a classroom at Poe Middle School in Annandale where she was a guest at ArtSpeak last year.

There were many in the hall who had obviously caught her act before. How else to explain the “oh, good, here comes my favorite!” murmur that spread as she delivered the intro to “Taylor, the Latte Boy,” a song by special material writers Marcie Heisler and Zina Goldrich that is just right for her perky personality.

Chenoweth brought two dancers with her to perform routines that Kathleen Marshal had choreographed for her on her opening number, Gershwin’s  “Let Yourself Go” and two specialty bits: Styne, Comden and Green's and  “If You Hadn’t But You Did” and Bobby Troupe’s “Daddy.”  She used the full orchestra for Bernstein’s “Glitter and Be Gay” – probably the ultimate coloratura Soprano display song. The Kern medley was supported by the tasteful piano work of Hamlisch. Through it all, it was the personality and talent of Chenoweth that captivated the audience. 

Conducted by Marvin Hamlisch. Choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. Guest: Kristen Chenoweth. Dancers: Vince Pesce, Sean Martin Hingston.