Pop maestro Marvin Hamlisch is one of those rare musicians who can marry classical music afficionados with popular music enthusiasts and make everybody happy, including the musicians.
Back Thursday night for the first of five performances this weekend with the Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall, he brought a program especially for us. American Songbook comprised a dozen perennial favorites from musicals we all know: from Kiss Me Kate, Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, South Pacific, and Annie Get Your Gun, to Ragtime and The Man of La Mancha and more.
Hamlisch is a model conductor to watch. Now in his upper 60s, he walks rather gingerly out to the conductor’s dais. Once there he is no podium dancer, thrusting his arms out in fencing stance, or waving them furiously. He stands quietly, and indicates clearly with quite small arm movements just what he wants the orchestra to do.
It’s a complete contrast to the reactions of the musicians to his gestures. The orchestra exploded into life Thursday night like a finely tuned Ferrari with a medley of tunes from My Fair Lady. Thrilling vitality and polished pizzazz from the musicians started the evening off in a way to put the audience into the right mood for the evening.
Two Broadway veterans (in experience, not age) joined Hamlisch as soloists: soprano vocalist Ashley Brown, who many will remember as Mary Poppins in the national tour, and bass-baritone vocalist Brian Stokes Mitchell, who you might have caught on PBS or DVD with Reba McEntire in South Pacific.
Each is a consummate professional. Brown appeared in three stylish and becoming gowns—hot pink, light blue, and royal blue—looking lovelier in each one, her hair in a sleek, shining knot. She sang one familiar song after another with expressive artistry, from “I’ll be Seeing You,” to “Let’s Fall in Love,” and “If I were a Bell,” but the highlight was “Feed the Birds,” where her vocal texture, phrasing and dynamics made for a riveting performance. While she sang it with a more contemporary approach perhaps, the timbre of her voice and its coloration is very similar to that of Marni Nixon, who was the voice for Julie Andrews in the original Mary Poppins movie.
Ashley Brown– From Mary Poppins:
Brian Stokes Mitchell, after a luscious performance of “Some Enchanted Evening,” told the audience that he’s spent so much time in musicals some have said he must have been born on Broadway. And, he said, “That’s true. I was born here in Seattle, at Swedish Hospital, on Broadway!” a comment which brought roars of laughter. It is surprising, however, that in the many years of his career (he was born in 1957), this is the first time he’s performed in Seattle. Now he’s had a taste of audiences here, let’s hope he’ll be back.
Brian Stokes Mitchel– From The Man Of La Mancha:
Like Brown he is a superb artist. Together they brought the house down with their lively competition in “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” and his unmiked singing of “This Nearly was Mine,” showed off the beautiful quality of his voice, its firm core, his fine technique and expressive ability as well as his big range, from rich low notes to soaring high ones. Ted Firth took the piano during Mitchell’s songs and had one fine short rif to himself.
As always, Hamlisch, despite having his back to the singers, knew exactly what they would do and always had the orchestra right there in support.
There was just one encore, “People Will Say We’re in Love,” as entrancing as the rest of the program. By Philippa Kiraly, City Arts Seattle