BWW Reviews: Baltimore Symphony's Tribute to Marvin Hamlisch Highlights Strength of His Music and Character
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) conductor Jack Everly's strong history with the late, great award-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch underscored a relatively unique and heartfelt tribute concert at Bethesda's renowned Music Center at Strathmore this week. His rich, personal stories about the man and his music and careful attention to presenting not only songs that the prodigious talent wrote, but also ones that he wished he had written made for a relatively well-rounded concert event for those well-versed in Hamlisch's work and perhaps those who were not. The BSO - an orchestra with a longstanding affiliation to Hamlisch - local and New York-based vocal talent from the musical theatre and opera worlds, and several up-and-coming youth singers and dancers all worked as one to pay a sincere tribute to the man that will not soon be forgotten.
Featuring selections from film and the stage, Everly and company gave the audience a taste of the familiar and, to a slightly lesser extent, the less known Hamlisch compositions and the works that inspired him. Whether playing selections from Hamlisch's lesser known film score for The Swimmer (with a standout moment from cellist Chang Woo Lee), "That's How I Say Goodbye" - a cut selection from the short-lived Sweet Smell of Success - Jule Styne's overture to the Broadway classic Gypsy, or Leonard Bernstein's "Somewhere" from West Side Story - both selections Hamlisch himself said, several years ago, that he wanted to be included in any tribute concert - the BSO's musicianship was first rate. Although the BSO didn't quite achieve what I would call an awe-inspiring groove and energy in the more up-beat instrumental musical theatre numbers from Gypsy, They're Playing Our Song, or The Goodbye Girl - with the exception of the exceptional pianist Lura Johnson - one had to at the very least appreciate the solid technique on display.
Lead vocalist Marissa McGowan, who starred in the world premiere of Hamlisch's last musical The Nutty Professor, proved capable of handling the diverse kinds of music that Hamlisch gave to the world. She was delightfully cheery and endearing - and appropriately bubbly - as she took on his popular hits "California Nights" and "Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows." The versatile McGowan also conveyed real emotion as she courageously tackled the mammoth Oscar-winning "The Way We Were." While her crystal clear vocals aren't exactly the most memorable or unique of the current crop of American musical theatre talent, they are certainly proficient, beautiful, and are well matched with her solid stage presence.
Vocally, the concert soared when McGowan took the stage with local musical theatre talent Felicia Curry and New York-based Kate Fisher - last seen in Washington in Adventure Theatre MTC's production of Big - to perform "At the Ballet" from A Chorus Line. Curry and Fisher, extraordinarily powerful singers in their own right, made the few moments they were onstage count as they embodied Bebe and Shelia, respectively. McGowan, likewise, connected with her verse in the song (portraying Maggie) and delivered her best vocal moment of the night. Yes, she hit the vocal climax as all the best Maggies do, but there was also a real intention behind the entire performance and attention to detail. Collectively, all three singers seemingly effortlessly delivered the standout moment of the night. The addition of dancers from The Baltimore School of the Arts to the number was also a nice touch.
While I would have liked to hear these vocalists also take on a few other lesser known numbers from the Hamlisch cannon (I don't know, maybe something from The Goodbye Girl or Smile), the performance did remind me why "At the Ballet" is as great as it is - particularly when well sung.
While concertgoers are likely to remember the selection from Hamlisch's symphonic suite Anatomy of Peace for the message and the inclusion of some precious young talent, including boy soprano John Moses, several vocal technique challenges marred the moment. Nonetheless, given Marvin's longstanding commitment to mentoring and challenging young musicians, it was nice to see Everly and company include them. To be sure, the song is vocally challenging and they gave it a nice go.
Overall, despite my quibbles, I do have to say the concert is likely to prove memorable to those that attended. I urge those in Baltimore to check out the concert as it travels to the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall this weekend.
Marvin Hamlisch: One Singular Sensation played the Music Center at Strathmore on January 23, 2014. Baltimore-based audiences can see the concert from January 24-26, 2014 at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in downtown Baltimore. For more information and tickets, see the BSO website.