BWW Reviews: National Symphony Orchestra, Morrison, and Benanti Bring Broadway to Wolf Trap
As soon as the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), under the baton of maestro Steven Reineke, started playing the Kander and Ebb classic "New York, New York," I started to forget about the fact that I was caught in a rainstorm and was more than a little wet. My soggy shoes were immediately forgotten when the talented group of musicians made one of my all-time favorite Broadway overtures (South Pacific) seem new. By the time the headline vocalists took the stage for the evening, I could only revel in the beautiful music and think about little else.
Yes, it's NSO at Wolf Trap season again in the DC Metro Area. Last night's offering featured the NSO, Matthew Morrison, and Laura Benanti taking on some classic Broadway showtunes with a few pop hits thrown in for good measure. Morrison - probably best known to the general public for his work as high school teacher Mr. Schuster on the popular television show Glee - has made somewhat of a career the past few years sharing his considerable 'song and dance man' talents alongside some of the greatest symphonies in the country. Last night, in front of an appreciative and hearty crowd, Morrison continued this trend of showing he's more than just that guy on Glee. He reminded me once again why I fell in love with his voice in 2005 while experiencing the grandeur that was Adam Guettel's The Light in the Piazza at Lincoln Center and then again in 2008 during the Lincoln Center revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific. Special guest, Broadway vet and Tony Award winner Benanti - featured in the Broadway revivals of Gypsy, Nine, Into the Woods, and The Sound of Music, screen-to-stage musicals like Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown and The Wedding Singer - is always a delight in cabaret, concert, and in any musical (and I've seen her in many). Her performance last night was certainly no exception.
Standout moments came in many forms and from many sources despite a sound balance issue or two.
Morrison's jazzy rendition of the Duke Ellington standard "It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got that Swing" proved to be a strong start for his set because it showcased both his smooth and pleasing vocals as well as his stage presence. Yes, the ever-present hat made an appearance as did his dance moves. His fun-loving spirit - and clear admiration for Gene Kelly - was on display yet again during his apropos closing number, "Singin' in the Rain," complete with an umbrella. However, it was the more understated vocal moments that got my attention, many of which are featured on his relatively recent debut solo album. From "As Long as She Needs Me" (Oliver) to "On the Street Where You Live" (My Fair Lady), it's abundantly clear that Morrison can also connect with an audience without any excess. His pure and crystal clear vocals are certainly an asset that I hope are put to good use on the Broadway stage once again. I did wish he could take on something from South Pacific given his connection to that show, but perhaps that's a reason for him to come back to give another concert in the Washington, DC area.
The charming Mr. Morrison met his match and then some with Ms. Benanti. She reminisced about her Broadway debut in The Sound of Music by revisiting the title song from that show. Impeccable vocal control and even a bit of humor, she made me forget how many times I've heard that song because it all seemed new and fresh. Her rendition is one of my favorites. "I Could Have Danced All Night" (My Fair Lady) was also a great way to showcase her strong, trained soprano voice and the way she can form an intimate connection with romantic lyrics. However, the moment she made the greatest impression was not when she took on these Broadway classics - those who've followed her career know her voice is divine and perfectly suited to them - but with her interpretation of the Arlen/Mercer standard "Come Rain or Come Shine." Rich vocals and subtle but unique personal touches, the emotionally resonant performance served as a reminder that not only can she can pretty much sing anything really, really well, but not lose touch of the lyrical meaning. Songs, for Ms. Benanti, aren't simply a means to showcase her stunning vocals and that's nice to see.
Although I've seen both performers in numerous concerts, cabarets, and musicals, I've not ever had the chance to hear them sing together. Despite their very different vocal flavors and performing styles, the duets worked just as well as the solos. Taking on songs as varied as "Over the Rainbow" (featuring Morrison on ukulele) and recent pop hits like "Starry-Eyed/Video Games" (a very nice arrangement by Todd Almond), they achieved a great vocal blend and demonstrated a wonderful friendly rapport with one another. I've heard Laura do that pop arrangement previously and while extremely memorable as a solo, the addition of Matthew's voice was a nice bonus.
At every step of the way, the NSO - along with the equally talented music director/pianist Brad Ellis (probably best known as "Brad the Pianist" on Glee) - served as a perfect complement to the vocal performances no matter the style. Although the precision and energy with which the orchestra plays is undeniable, I especially appreciated that the musicians were very clearly enjoying performing the music as much as the singers. I've found with many pops orchestras this isn't always the case when it comes to Broadway material. Yet, they didn't only shine when there were vocalists in the mix. As much as the overture from Gypsy may be, for some, far too common in Broadway-centric symphonic concerts, I must say it's one that I can't get enough of. Ever. Particularly when played by such an incredible orchestra.
And that's what this concert was.....pretty incredible.
The reviewed concert was a one-night-only event at Wolf Trap on July 10, 2014. For a listing of upcoming NSO events at Wolf Trap consult: http://www.wolftrap.org/Filene_Center/NSO.aspx
Photo: Matthew Morrison (courtesy of Wolf Trap official website)