BWW Reviews: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Pays Tribute to Kander and Ebb with ALL THAT JAZZ at Strathmore
My musical nerd self was very much elated when I entered the Concert Hall at the Music Center at Strathmore, just outside of Washington, DC last night. Images of artwork from John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb's (lyrics) musicals hung just above the stage - and not just the ones you'd expect like Cabaret and Chicago. Promotional artwork from Steel Pier, The Act, Flora the Red Menace, The Happy Time, Curtains, Steel Pier, and The Scottsboro Boys was also on display, which made me curious as to whether or not the evening's program - All That Jazz: A Symphonic Celebration of Kander & Ebb - would also feature selections from those shows.
As Principal Pops Conductor Jack Everly and his Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) emerged on the stage and played a rousing and nicely arranged overture - done by none other than Jack Everly himself - featuring snippets from known and lesser known Kander and Ebb offerings, it was easy to get lost in the wonderful work that the dynamic writing team offered to Broadway and beyond during their 40-something-year partnership. What a treat it was to hear the exceptional music played by a glorious symphonic orchestra and not a five-piece band. Over the course of the next two hours or so, the orchestra and five lead vocalists - occasionally accompanied by six dancers - continued the positive trend set during the opening few moments of the show and did justice to the rich material.
As Everly reminded the audience, Kander and Ebb wrote adult musicals that very rarely shied away from dealing with difficult subject matter. The concert selections certainly reflected that and were well performed.
Tenor Ron Remke - a regular at regional theatres in the Northeast and at symphonic concerts around the country - start us off right with a well-sung and entertaining take on "Wilkommen" from Cabaret. Former star of The Phantom of the Opera Ted Keegan's very pleasing and highly trained vocals were very well-suited to "First You Dream" from the far too short-lived musical Steel Pier. Performance wise, it was one of the two standout performances of the night and featured not only technically solid vocals, but intention behind every lyric sung.
Kirsten Scott - probably best known to DC audiences for her portrayal of Young Phyllis in the Kennedy Center production of Stephen Sondheim's Follies, which later went to Broadway - brought just enough sass and pizazz to her contributions to a melody of songs from the movie version of Cabaret, which were inserted to subsequent stage productions. Her "Mein Heir" proved to be a highlight as did her segments of the Chicago medley at the end of the concert, namely "Roxie" and "Nowadays."
Nikki Renée Daniels impressed me with her rendition of "Summertime" in the Broadway revival of Gershwins' Porgy and Bess several years back and her rendition of "Go Back Home" (from The Scottsboro Boys) at this concert was just as moving, emotionally resonant and well-sung. Her crystal clear and pure vocals - very much reminiscent of Lea Salonga or Liz Callaway - lent themselves well to this number and her interpretation of it more than adequately conveyed the longing and wistful mood of the song. It was the second standout performance of the night for me and brought me back to when I saw the intriguing and challenging show on Broadway - another production that closed far too soon.
Beth Leavel - best known for her Tony Award-winning performance in The Drowsy Chaperone - has the kind of stage presence that can reach even those sitting in the far back of a large concert hall. Here, she exercised her considerable comedic chops more than a few times with "City Lights" from The Act - which very much paid homage to Liza Minnelli - and "Everybody's Girl" from Steel Pier. Her contributions to the Chicago medley also proved to be an audience favorite, including "All that Jazz," "Cell Block Tango," and "When You're Good to Mama." While I may have found the mugging a bit too much for my own personal taste and would have liked a few more dynamics in some of her vocals in the ensemble numbers, no one can deny that she has personality in spades and commits to every moment she has in the spotlight.
An electric finale - featuring all four singers on the popular "New York, New York" - ended the concert on a high note.
As much as I missed selections from Curtains and The Visit (even if it has yet to hit Broadway), I do have to give Mr. Everly credit for highlighting many of the lesser known musical selections he did. The standard pops conductor in many areas of the country without an intimate understanding for and appreciation of all of what Kander and Ebb accomplished might have just gave us a night of Cabaret and Chicago. While those two shows were a focus, he also included other treats for nerds like me. I also have to give credit to the BSO for playing the selections with energy and joy and ensuring they were played not too 'straight.' This is not always the case when these fine musicians take on more upbeat numbers drawn from the American musical theatre canon. In this case, it was technique matched with flair. A great thing, no doubt.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours including an intermission
"All That Jazz: A Symphonic Celebration of Kander & Ebb" played one performance at the Music Center at Strathmore - 5301 Tuckerman Lane in North Bethesda, MD - on May 15. The same concert will be presented at the Meyerhoff in Baltimore, MD from May 16-18, 2014. For ticket information, consult the BSO website.
Photo: Jack Everly pictured (courtesy of BSO website)