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BWW Reviews: The POPS' Viva Philadelphia! Celebrates Philly's Italian Musical Heritage

New York may be the place with the big parade, but if Philly isn't a Columbus Day kind of town, no place is. So opening the Philly POPS season and Michael Krajewski's tenure with a concert called "Viva Philadelphia!" is an easy and delightful choice for introducing the new manifestation of the Pops to the city that loves them. The choice of guests was equally inspired - the pops-classical crossover trio Poperazzi, plus the long-established POPS Festival Chorus, and Philly's own Eddie Bruce, who can always be counted on to channel masterfully the sounds of that very Italian, most popular of popular singers, Tony Bennett. Performed on October 11, 12, and 13 at KimMel Center's Verizon Hall, the concert brought in Columbus Day with a real flourish.

There's nothing more Italian and Philadelphian at the same time than that big bronze guy over at the museum, so when the POPS opened, sans Krajewski, blaring the theme from ROCKY, it was a sure bet that Krajewski would come charging up the museum steps - er, make that down the aisles. After moving, with his help, into a spirited Bali il Tarantella (yes, the old standby we can all hum, but everyone loves it), begun by the woodwinds and carried by the strings and, finally, brass, the famous POPS brass took up "Funiculi, Funicula" to the delight of the audience.

Poperazzi, the trio of classically trained tenor George DeMott, musical theatre veteran Cody Shawn Gay, and trained Vegas singer Janien Valentine, dominated the rest of the first half beginning with their "Brindisi" from LA TRAVIATA, and following immediately with DeMott's performance of Philly native Mario Lanza's signature "Be My Love". DeMott's a fine tenor, and backed by the POPS and the chorus, with the full Lanza treatment, the presentation lacked nothing except Lanza's high note at the end, which would have been spectacular. Valentine followed with a marvelous "Be Italian" from NINE, instructing the men in the audience on how to be Italian lovers.

A full orchestral arrangement of Paganini's Caprice No. 24 with variations followed, as "Paganini at the POPS," which featured some smoking-hot jazz string work, followed by brass over strings in a moment of pure Sixties inspiration that could have been the theme to one of the decade's epic film productions. Poperazzi closed the first half with their performance of "The Prayer" (originally from the deservedly otherwise-forgotten QUEST FOR CAMELOT by Warner Brothers) and an audience-involvement rousing vocal performance of "Funiculi, Funicula."

After "That's Volare," a fanfare of "That's Amore" combined with a woodwind-and-brass-driven "Volare," the introduction of Philadelphia's own Eddie Bruce brought down the house, as did his version of Leslie Bricusse's "If I Ruled The World." A Tony Bennett medley was followed by Michel Legrand's "How Do You Keep The Music Playing," again to the cheers of an audience full of Bruce's fans. Bruce is a powerhouse vocalist, both as a fine Bennett interpreter (possibly the very best of them) and in his own right, and there was no doubt as to his deserved place on the POPS stage with the orchestra and Krajewski, even for those less familiar with his work but more familiar with the POPS.

Poperazzi returned with a Frank Sinatra medley to follow Tony Bennett, and then with their "Singing Italian Songs" production number, battling "Saturday In The Park," the source of the number's title, with "O Sole Mio". The concert concluded with a medley from Broadway musical JERSEY BOYS, which certainly feels local to Philadelphians as it celebrates Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, and an encore, led by Poperazzi and Bruce, of Elton John's "Philadelphia Freedom".

The reception by the audience of the opening concert of this season is proof that the Philly POPS is alive and well in its new incarnation, and that its second conductor, Krajewski, has definitely been accepted by POPS fans as its leader. The strings are still recognizably smooth and the trademark brass and percussion are still as readily identifiable as ever. The sound is unchanged, and the spirit is unchanged, but the change of leadership seems to have brought in some fresh energy along with it. Krajewski is one of the most experienced of pops orchestra conductors, with a delightful dry humor that's required for the role as well as serious conducting talent. Pops orchestras and their mixed-bag repertoires and guests have long been one of American orchestral music's ways of luring audiences into an appreciation of classical music, and Krajewski brings with him the possibility of reaching out to a new audience to do just that.

For more information and for tickets to upcoming concerts, including their annual Christmas concert and what should be a spectacular John Williams concert in April, visit www.phillypops.org.


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From This Author Marakay Rogers