BWW Review: Darren Criss, Betsy Wolfe, and the National Symphony Bring a Little Broadway to Kennedy Center
One thing I can always count on when I go to a National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) Pops concert featuring music of the Great White Way - and perhaps beyond - is that the accomplished musicians and their exceptional conductor Steven Reineke will give it all the energy, vigor and verve it deserves. This was certainly the case on Friday night as the orchestra and guest vocalists Darren Criss (HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH) and Betsy Wolfe (BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD, 110 IN THE SHADE and more) explored a bit of the current Broadway repertoire.
Sure there were a few cheats here and there. Strictly speaking, some of the songs featured have never been or have yet to be performed on Broadway. For example, "Let it Go" from FROZEN has yet to be performed on Broadway although FROZEN is slated to arrive in 2018. William Finn's "I'd Rather Be Sailing" is an excellent number from A NEW BRAIN, but that show played Off-Broadway originally and the recent Encores production at City Center also doesn't really qualify. The same can be said for Ahrens and Flaherty's equally compelling "The Streets of Dublin" from THE MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE and Jason Robert Brown's divinely comedic "A Summer in Ohio" from THE LAST FIVE YEARS. Both THE MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE and THE LAST FIVE YEARS had at least one Off-Broadway run (the last one of which featured Ms. Wolfe herself), but never played in a Broadway house. Then there's one of my favorite songs that Stephen Schwartz ever wrote. Although nearly every musical theatre nerd knows "Meadowlark" from THE BAKER'S WIFE and it's been featured in many a cabaret and concert, the under-appreciated show never made it to Broadway.
Still, once my musical theatre nerd-self got over these issues (and to be clear Reineke and the performers were frank about the word "Broadway" being loosely used throughout the evening), I appreciated that some of the lesser known Broadway fare was represented. Darren Criss, of GLEE fame, performed the hyper "I Love Betsy" from Jason Robert Brown's short-lived musical HONEYMOON IN VEGAS, and also joined the exquisite Betsy Wolfe on a lovely arrangement of "Before and After You" and "One Second and a Million Miles" from Brown's far, far, far too under-appreciated musical THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, which will play the Kennedy Center this summer. You usually don't hear those songs, especially not with a full orchestra. Songs from mega-hits or well-known musicals like THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, CHICAGO, ONCE, RAGTIME, LES MISERABLES, THE BOOK OF MORMON, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, and CABARET were also represented either orchestrally or with vocals. Throw in an exquisitely sung and emotionally resonant rendition of Maury Yeston's "Unusual Way" (Wolfe's version rivaled Laura Benanti's take in the revival of NINE, which is no small feat), and "Getting Married Today" from Stephen Sondheim's groundbreaking COMPANY. The end result is a concert that does - at least in comparison to many others - reflect the diverse nature of what constitutes a "showtune."
Did I wish some lesser known Broadway composers like Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were represented? Of course. Yet, the combination of Betsy Wolfe and the orchestra's first-rate musicianship, in particular, left me satisfied. Anytime one can hear showtunes performed by a large, talented orchestra and talented lead vocalists is a good day.
Top highlights for me include Steven Reineke's swinging orchestral arrangement of Ahrens and Flaherty's RAGTIME, as well as Betsy Wolfe's vocally stunning rendition of "Meadowlark." Most associate this latter song with Patti LuPone or Liz Callaway, but Wolfe's take on it is one of the best I've heard and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. Her vocal control, impressive range, and ability to convey the emotional intent behind a lyric made this one to remember. Her flair for comedy also made her rendition of "A Summer in Ohio" most impressive, and she proved she has the pipes to sing "Let it Go" from FROZEN in a sure and steady and vocally memorable way. Another high point was Reineke showing off his musical theatre flair as he did a duet with Criss on "You and Me" (But Mostly Me) from THE BOOK OF MORMON. All in pure fun, it looked like both men were having a ball.
While Darren Criss was more than a bit out of his vocal and performance comfort zone for most of the evening, he did best with those songs that featured arrangements that fall more squarely into the rock/pop singer/songwriter domain. He matched Wolfe quite well on "Falling Slowly" (from ONCE), accompanying them both on acoustic guitar. A stripped-down, acoustic version of "I Dreamed a Dream" (from LES MISERABLES) served as his most positively memorable moment because it put the overdone song in a new light, and fit his specific talent. While I might have wished for a stronger male vocalist to match Wolfe and the orchestra, I do give him kudos for the effort he made.
All in all, one can count this concert as yet another strong one for the NSO Pops series.
Running Time: 2 hours, including one intermission.
Broadway Today with Darren Criss and Betsy Wolfe played the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC on February 26 and 27, 2016. Upcoming NSO Pops concerts include Boyz II Men on May 20 and 21 and Forever Gershwin on June 17 and 18. For tickets, call the Kennedy Center box office at 202-467-4600 or purchase them online.