BWW Review: THE PHILLY POPS PRESENTS THE BEST OF BROADWAY at The Kimmel Center
They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway, but nothing shines brighter than guest conductor Todd Ellison and Broadway stars Debbie Gravitte, Christopher Sieber, and Susan Egan as they join the Philly POPS for the Best of Broadway concert at The Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall.
As a part of The Philly POPS' 39th season, guest conductor and prolific Broadway musical director/composer/arranger Todd Ellison leads the over-sixty-piece orchestra, as well as Gravitte, Sieber, and Egan, in an evening of great fun and entertainment. This special theatre-centric concert is a Broadway buffet that features the crème de la crème of Broadway music. The program perfectly progresses through an assortment of show tunes, tapping (sometimes literally) into important songs that connect to all generations and highlight tunes to whet every theatre-lover's appetite.
There's no business like show business, and there's no business Ellison knows better! Todd Ellison has been a part of seventeen Broadway productions and is the perfect man to marry theatre and concert music. It is clear from the very top of the Best of Broadway program that Ellison conducts with both his heart and his body. Ellison sways to the rhythm of the Jerry Herman Overture, and Ellison's waves his baton like a natural extension to his arm.
Tony award winning actress, Debbie Gravitte (Jerome Robbins Broadway, They're Playing Our Song, Blues In The Night, Perfectly Frank, Zorba, Ain't Broadway Grand?, Chicago, Les Miserables), is an absolute fire-cracker. Her renditions of "It Might as Well be Spring" from State Fair and "From This Moment On" from Kiss Me Kate in the first act of the concert are jazzy and joyous. Gravitte shows off her dance moves for the audience and sings out passionately. From the moment she first steps onto the stage in act one, her personality is as bright as the hot pink gloves and pumps she wears.
The mix of the gorgeous orchestrations in Alan Menken's "If I Can't Love Her" from Disney's Beauty and the Beast (one of my personal favorite pieces of music in a modern Broadway show) combined with the full, luxurious voice of Christopher Sieber (Spamalot, Shrek the Musical, La Cage aux Folles, Into the Woods, Chicago, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Triumph of Love, Disney's Beauty and the Beast) in his POPS debut gives me goosebumps. Then, in the second half of the program, Sieber sings a powerful rendition of "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha that will leave you believing anything is possible.
Susan Egan (Cabaret, Triumph of Love, State Fair), the original Belle on Broadway in Disney's Beauty and the Beast and THE Millie from Thoroughly Modern Millie, performs the epic ingénue anthem "Gimme, Gimme" showing off her incredible range and show-stopping voice. And in true Disney fashion, this princess could not get through the night without performing a medley homage to modern Disney heroines. In the second act, as soon as Susan Egan opens her mouth to sing a duet with Gravitte of "For Good" from Wicked, the concert hall becomes so quiet, you can hear a pin drop.
One of my favorite moments of the evening is Debbie Gravitte singing "Anything You Can Do" from Annie Get Your Gun with the maestro himself, Todd Ellison. This is a true test of Ellison's multitasking ability, and with a microphone in his left hand and his conducting baton in the right, Ellison sings the duet while simultaneously conducting the POPS. Gravitte even tries to take over Ellison's job, singing "anything you conduct, I can conduct better!" while swinging her own baton. The banter between the two is so fun and genuine, and it is by far the most endearing moment of the evening.
Another amazing moment in the program is the POPS homage to 42nd Street, a show which Ellison explains holds special meaning to him. Ellison was a part of the 2001 Broadway revival of the show and played exactly 1000 performances as Music Director. In the POPS' version of the title song, the percussionists use tap shoes to emulate the rhythms of the dancers in the show, and the POPS playing will leave you tap dancing in your seat.
With this Best of Broadway concert, the POPS prove yet again that they can tackle any music and any genre. There is amazing resonance in the cello-shaped concert hall, and the POPS' sound floods the entire room. You cannot help but get chills when you hear them play; the POPS perfect playing and full sound highlights the nuances and subtleties in the show music that can often be missed with smaller Broadway pit orchestras that are often only comprised of only five sections.
In this concert, the audience can clearly feel the passion that the musicians, Ellison, and the guest vocalists have for the songs they perform. Each song in the program was chosen because of its meaning to Ellison, Gravitte, Sieber, and Egan. Between each song, Ellison pauses to tell anecdotes and share bits of theatre history with the audience, smoothly transitioning into the next piece. He tells of his personal connections to the music, and tells us funny tidbits, like how ironic it is that he grew up in Connecticut on a street called Melody Lane. Ellison engages with Gravitte, Sieber, and Egan, and it is very clear that the music in the concert holds special meaning and very personal significance to all four.
When I had interviewed Ellison a few weeks ago in his preparation for the concert, he told me that he was very much looking forward to sharing with the POPS and the audience a medley of songs from A Chorus Line. In this medley, Ellison proves he has an impressive grasp on the score and shows he has firm control of the POPS. Then, he takes a moment to step away from the conductor's podium to play the piano, and with the last touch of his fingers against the keys of the baby grand, he blows a kiss into the air for his mentor and inspiration, Hamlisch.
When Gravitte, Sieber, and Egan's voices all combine with the full power of the POPS under Ellison's baton it is truly magical. The three sing together a tribute of three powerful love ballads by Andrew Lloyd Weber at the end of the first act. Then they sing together again the final song of the evening: "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from Spamalot. You can't help but whistle along to this finale. It is a show-stopper that leaves everyone humming and dancing as they exit the concert hall.
The Philly POPS' Best of Broadway concert is the perfect marriage of symphonic orchestration and Broadway rhythm. It is an impeccable program of songs performed by a dream-team. Ellison's extensive classical training and boundless Broadway experience proves that the POPS are in more than capable hands with this line-up.
This is definitely a must-see event for any Broadway enthusiast! You cannot help but smile while watching this program, and the overall feeling of the evening is exuberant and good-natured. The audience can hardly resist (and sometimes can't resist!) singing along. What a means to bring the Great White Way to the City of Brotherly Love!
The Philly POPS' Best of Broadway concert runs this weekend only, with two more performances on Saturday March 10th and Sunday March 11th at 3 pm. For more information about the program, and to purchase tickets please visit www.phillypops.com/broadway
To read my pre-concert interview with Todd Ellison, visit /philadelphia/article/BWW-Interview-Todd-Ellison-Conducts-The-Philly-POPS-Best-of-Broadway-Concert-at-The-Kimmel-Center-20180307#.WqAvYi3H5eU.facebook