Johnny Mathis Still a Crowd-Pleaser at Age 72
Now on tour in celebration of more than 50 years as a recording artist, the legendary Johnny Mathis showed the kids how it's done on Saturday night, May 31st, packing his loyal fans into the 4,400-seat Rosemont Theatre in suburban Chicago, adjacent to O'Hare International Airport.
And I do mean "kids," because a collegiate vocal ensemble was his opening act. More on that later.
But as for the headliner of the night, Mr. Mathis was and is the genuine article. Looking quite dapper in a Brooks Brothers or Ralph Lauren suit and pocket handkerchief, appearing at a distance to be Frankie Valli's darker-skinned, slightly taller brother, he held the stage for a quite respectable hour and ten minutes, and performed by my count 22 songs (some in medleys), walking slowly across the proscenium stage in front of the mostly older audience, backed by the full (and fully-amplified, though not all of the house speakers were on) Chicagoland Pops Orchestra (his third appearance with them) and supported by his own four-piece band. His trademark throbby, jaw-clenched, romantic pop singing style firmly in hand (as was a microphone with an actual cord attached to it!), his voice with only a few lower and/or wobblier notes than one remembers, he is still a fully-committed interpreter of the Great American Pop Song, many of which he introduced and has been singing, helped and perhaps haunted by his own, pure-voiced younger self, now for parts of six decades.
Let's face it, folks—most people can't sing this well ever, much less at age 72. You have to give the man full credit. And his rapport and patter with the audience was thoroughly star-quality, from first to last. His music director, Scott Lavender, was no less impressive, conducting a large orchestra while playing keyboards and providing some backup vocals as well.
All of Johnny's biggest hits were here—"When I Fall in Love," "It's Not for Me to Say," "Gina," "Misty" (accompanied by that remarkable, faded-in high note before the last chorus), "Laura" and (the last song before a remarkable, South American-styled encore) "The Twelfth of Never," delivered with heartfelt adoration to an audience which was eating up every note. In fact, when Mathis reached the first chorus of "Chances Are," perhaps the song most associated with his early, meteoric success, a woman in the front of the house on the right side literally shrieked. Not a yell or a rock star scream, but a shriek of primal delight—the shock of recognition, the joy of forgetting where you are. Thank God it was brief, and no doubt it was understood by many.
Other highlights (and there were no lowlights) were a movie song medley (ending with "The Days of Wine And Roses" and "Moon River"), an unexpected three-song medley from the Broadway musical "Kismet," ("The Sands of Time," a samba-rhythmed "Baubles, Bangles and Beads" and "Stranger in Paradise," and the number which followed it, a sumptious "Secret Love." His last encore, sung with the same simplicity with which the young Barbra Streisand delivered the same number, was "You'll Never Know." All in all, this second half of the evening was exactly what the audience expected, or more, and Mathis can be proud to be able to offer such solid music-making, with just a whiff of nostalgia, for his tour, booked into next year according to his official website, www.johnnymathis.com.
And now, for some other issues. The Chicagoland Pops Orchestra, which this season has played host to Jewel, David Miller (of Il Divo and the Broadway "La Boheme") and Linda Eder, is either disappearing due to the withdrawal of funding from the Village of Rosemont (as stated in the printed program in a letter from Mayor Bradley A. Stephens), or is planning for next season, to be a series of single-purchase events rather than a subscription as this year has been—this was promised by Music Director and Principal Conductor Arnie Roth from the podium during the first half of the concert. (Stay tuned for whatever happens, or doesn't. It would be too bad if the Orchestra folded entirely.)
But what a crazy first half! The programming was an unwieldy blend of John Williams movie themes (including the "Raiders March" from "Raiders of the Lost Ark," complete with some unfortunate trumpet flubs) and vocal jazz standards, performed by—get this—a college jazz vocal group called "Gold Company," which stood in the middle of the orchestra, behind the strings and in front of the not-pleased woodwind section, where their jazzy stage moves couldn't be seen from the audience. To make matters worse, Maestro Roth proudly announced that his daughter is a member of the group, which hails from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, and the songs they chose could not have been more predictable—"Route 66," "Georgia on My Mind," and "It Had to Be You," along with the slightly less predictable "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone" and (I swear it actually happened) "My Country, 'Tis of Thee." As an encore, the group's director, Stephen Zegree, led them in a Swingle Singers-style "Flight of the Bumblebee."
The good news is that the group really is good. They sang well, had great poise and charm, and looked like they were having a ball. For those who like their jazz vocal ensembles, this one is great, complete with multiple Downbeat magazine awards and music education conference appearances. I'm sure many of the group's members are on the verge of wonderful music careers. But why were they chosen as the opening act? Nepotism? Low cost? One has to wonder. Fortunately, there was no harm done, some entertainment was provided (hard to see it, though), and the hundreds (and I do mean hundreds) of audience members who came in late (up to 30 minutes late into the 45 minute first act) didn't know whether they had missed anything good or not. The rest of us felt like we deserved better.
So, the first act, which seemed like Florida in winter had somehow been transported into Chicago's late spring (walkers, bathroom lines and all), became a fantastic Las Vegas evening after intermission. You really never do know what you're going to get during a night out—in the absence of timely, informative reviews, that is. Johnny Mathis, live long and prosper. Western Michigan University, keep educating those talented students and finding them innovative places to hone their craft. And the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra, please come back next season, with top-notch headliners and a little more attention to that stuff before intermission. Including a lecture to the ushers about when and how to seat those latecomers.