BWW Review: Powerhouse Vocals Celebrate 100 Years of Leonard Bernstein at Segerstrom Center

Filled with one amazing powerhouse vocal performance after another, ONE HAND, ONE HEART: ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF BERNSTEIN is a musical theater lover's treat of a concert, celebrating the legacy of one of music's most influential musicians and composers of the last century, Leonard Bernstein.

Featuring unforgettable classics from WEST SIDE STORY, ON THE TOWN and WONDERFUL TOWN plus lesser-known gems from CANDIDE and 1600 PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE performed by a non-stop barrage of very, very talented people, the celebratory concert continues performances at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts' intimate cabaret space, the Samueli Theatre in Costa Mesa through January 20.

The concert is the brainchild of its producer, director, and master-of-ceremonies Scott Coulter, who spends most of his stage time introducing the evening's talented cast while dropping trivia bombs all night about the legendary musician/composer/conductor/author and the music and shows he created. Born in August of 1918, Bernstein formed an early affection for piano and the theater, which would explain his everlasting contributions to the world of musical theater that most people truly know him for the most.

After further musical training at Harvard University and formal conducting training at Curtis Institute of Music, Bernstein settled in New York taking jobs transcribing music while studying conducting. There, he shared an apartment with his friend and roommate Adolph Green, with whom he would later form a comedy troupe alongside then-unknowns Betty Comden and Judy Holliday. Comden and Green, of course, would go on to collaborate with Bernstein on his 1944 musical ON THE TOWN (an expanded show spawned from his ballet FANCY FREE choreographed by Jerome Robbins) and WONDERFUL TOWN.

Naturally, ONE HAND, ONE HEART begins with songs from these two early Bernstein hits. The show begins with Coulter, Broadway star David Burnham, and rising theater performer Joshua Israel with a rousing opener "New York, New York" followed by a brassy, sassy, and superbly belted rendition of "I Can Cook, Too!" from two-time Tony Award nominee Mary Testa (fun fact --- Testa was nominated for her role in the 1998 revival of this musical).

These two beautifully performed opening numbers basically set the expectations for the rest of the evening, which this cast more than delivers in stunning, jaw-dropping ways. Every single number was worth the price of admission, but the most remarkable highlights included Israel's solo that had him doing a dazzling song-and-tap-dancing routine (!) set to "Lucky To Be Me" (from ON THE TOWN), the moving duet between Alex Getlin and last-minute addition Kelli Rabke on "A Boy Like That/I Have A Love" from WEST SIDE STORY that had me shedding some unexpected tears, and Burnham's beautifully soaring vocals on "Something's Coming" (WEST SIDE STORY) and "It Must Be So" (CANDIDE). He and Rabke were also particularly heartwarming and romantic in their duet on "Tonight" from WEST SIDE STORY.

I also adored Testa's bawdy take on "100 Easy Ways To Lose A Man" and Getlin and Rabke's lush harmonies on "Ohio" (both from WONDERFUL TOWN). Probably the most unexpectedly cool performance, though, for me was, well, "Cool" from WEST SIDE STORY which featured Getlin's commanding alto underscoring Israel's rhythmically enchanting tap dance. Seriously, someone sign these kids to a Broadway show today, if possible.

And speaking of kids... the theater folk on stage were joined on several instances by the terrific Cal State Fullerton University Singers, under the direction of choir director Dr. Robert Istad. The spectacular wall of sound this choir produced filled the room with musical joy, from their rendition of the "Tonight" Quintet from WEST SIDE STORY to their angelic take on the rarely-heard "Take Care of This House" from Bernstein's notorious 1976 flop musical, 1600 PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE, a show that featured lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner that lasted just 7 performances.

But the choir's most moving moment was their beautiful performance of "Make Our Garden Grow" from CANDIDE that had the room cheering on their feet afterwards (I wish I had written down the names of the two soloists they featured in this song---both of whom gave magnificent, crystal clear vocals that didn't even need the aid of microphone amplification). The choir rounds things out by joining the full cast in the finalé "Some Other Time/Somewhere." It was very much a wow moment to end the show.

Coulter, aside from his hosting duties, also gave the audience a goosebumps-inducing take on "Maria" from WEST SIDE STORY that stole the show. Yet it is his welcoming bits of Bernstein factoids that are really what endears him to the audience, giving us plenty of little-known info about the man we're celebrating.

A few things I learned through the course of the concert: Bernstein and Robbins were just 26 years old when they put together ON THE TOWN; the original feuding factions in what was then known as EAST SIDE STORY involved warring Jews and Catholics; and that Bernstein refused his 1% royalties for his lyrical "contribution" to WEST SIDE STORY and instead wanted Sondheim (who basically wrote most if not all the lyrics) to take the full 2% (by the way, Sondheim refused to take him up on his kindness and has apparently regretted it ever since).

Even more fascinating bit of nerd-dom: Bernstein used a very rarely used chord---the minor seventh---at the start of "Somewhere" that hasn't been used very much on other songs---except for one other famous occurrence: the main theme song to the original Star Trek series. (Admit it, you're humming it now in your head to check for yourself, huh?)

And in one of the more notorious stories about Bernstein, Coulter regaled us with the tale of when Bernstein gained instant notoriety in the fall of 1943, when he made his major conducting debut for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall without a single rehearsal. The Philharmonic's guest conductor, Bruno Walter, came down with the flu, prompting Bernstein to step up at the last minute. He received raves from the press for his debut and became an overnight sensation thanks to the fact that the concert was being broadcast nationally on the radio by CBS. It's nice to know that there was a time when the world can easily recognize a genuine, stable genius.

A fact that I did know that I was reminded about at tonight's concert: that the universally-loved WEST SIDE STORY indeed lost the Best Musical Tony Award to THE MUSIC MAN during the year both were nominated (the film version of WEST SIDE STORY, however, racked up the deserved accolades, winning 10 Academy Awards of its 11 nominations).

One glaring omission though caught my attention---the title of the show. Despite the name and its inclusion in the program's set list, "One Hand, One Heart" the hauntingly gorgeous love song from WEST SIDE STORY was not performed at all. Oh how I would have loved to have witnessed a pair from this incredible talent pool bring that song to life! But in an evening already brimming with lovely music, one less is a minor gripe.

Whether you're a Bernstein fanatic or a casual follower of classic musical theater, this excellent musical tribute is worth checking out, particularly in such an intimate space. Though I did miss hearing the full, orchestral sounds of Bernstein's score, the hardworking jazz trio comprised of Tony Guerrero on the trumpet, David Miller on the upright bass, and musical director John Boswell behind the piano provided ample accompaniment for the singers on stage. If you're anywhere near Orange County this weekend, be sure to check out this glorious tribute featuring truly outstanding voices.

** Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ **

Photos of Leonard Bernstein courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc. and Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

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Performances of ONE HAND, ONE HEART: 100 YEARS OF Leonard Bernstein at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through November 19, 2018. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.



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