Omaha, Nebraska — Many people inside the Holland Performing Arts Center had good reason to miss the singular presence of the late Marvin Hamlisch as the Omaha Symphony opened a weekend showcase of his music Saturday night.
The roster of those boasting musical or simply personal ties to Hamlisch was impressive: Resident Conductor Ernest Richardson, three veteran Broadway singers of Hamlisch’s music and the celebrated composer’s widow, Terre, who paid tribute to his Omaha friends and the symphony’s musicians.
Hamlisch, who performed with the symphony at the Orpheum Theater in 2002 and on his own at the Holland on New Year’s Eve 2005, “would be very moved” by the concert, Terre Hamlisch said. Turning to the orchestra, she added: “You should know that Marvin enjoyed coming to Omaha to work with you, some of the finest musicians in the world.”
There was one place inside the Peter Kiewit Concert Hall where the absence of Hamlisch, who died in 2012, was most keenly felt. That was at the piano bench near center stage, where principal symphony keyboardist Christi Zuniga did a superlative job with the many song-opening piano riffs that made Hamlisch’s music so memorable.
If Hamlisch could have returned to the Holland one more time, that piano bench surely would have been his base. That was where so many live audiences and television viewers saw him for more than 40 years: accompanying orchestras and singers, occasionally joining in vocal duets, raising one arm from the keyboard to start or cut off the ensemble.
Many keyboard-oriented pops conductors do this, to be sure, but Hamlisch always had this look of happiness and joy when he played along. He never left anyone in doubt that he reveled in making music, said Doug LaBrecque, one of the evening’s trio of Broadway soloists.
“He was hilarious, very quick-witted and always a comedic genius,” said LaBrecque, who sang with Hamlisch in several orchestra concerts. “He was very passionate about continuing the legacy of the Great American Songbook and the power of music to bring people together.”
With that, he opened a lesser-known Hamlisch tune expressing just those thoughts: “One Song,” a poignant, ringing tribute to the power of music that gained extra vocal power from fellow soloists Donna McKechnie and Jodi Benson, the Omaha Symphonic Chorus and the Creighton University Chamber Choir.
LaBrecque displayed a deep affinity with Hamlisch’s music in addition to great stage presence and vocal prowess (as befits the latest Broadway “Phantom of the Opera” veteran to play the Holland). But the true Hamlisch headliners were his female peers: Benson, who went on to voice Ariel in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” and especially McKechnie, the original Cassie in “A Chorus Line.”
Benson, who dazzled concertgoers with her soaring vocals and precise diction, spoke movingly about making her Broadway debut in “Smile,” Hamlisch’s 1986 musical about a California beauty pageant. She then sang her main song from that show: “Disneyland,” which spoke of the contestants’ dreams but proved unknowingly prophetic for Benson herself.
McKechnie bubbled over with stories of Hamlisch and her pride in “A Chorus Line,” commanding the hall as she sang or led the performances of “Nothing,” “At the Ballet,” “Inside the Music — The Music and the Mirror” and especially “What I Did for Love.”
For “At the Ballet,” McKechnie was joined by Benson and Omahan Colleen Kilcoyne, a senior theater major at Creighton whom Richardson tapped from the ranks of the Chamber Choir. It was an inspiring symphony debut for Kilcoyne, who displayed a mature, clear sound and an unrattled poise next to her accomplished partners.