Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
The New York Pops season finale paid tribute to a swathe of songwriters from the last 60 years. After an instrumental Beatles medley, we hear pop, country/folk and r & b songs performed by tonight’s four Broadway veterans: Will Chase, Christopher Jackson, Jessie Mueller, and Adrienne Warren. Each performer has his or her moments to shine.
Chris Jackson- no surprise- has a real feel for R & B. Al Kooper’s “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” showcases a moody warble and the squeeze/push of expression best employed for the genre. His tenor slides up as if greased. Wah-wah horns and an alto sax carry the number. Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” emerges less gritty than usual, but soulful. Jackson’s movements are tight, as if jerked by the impact of certain lyrics. He exudes cool.
Jessie Mueller’s genuinely original arrangement of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (Elton John/Bernie Taupin) is the highlight of the evening. One of several songs tonight whose treatment by The Pops is as subdued as I’ve ever heard them, it begins with only piano and Mueller’s pure, plaintive vocal. Strings come in; phrasing is elongated emphasizing wistful lyrics. This one resonates. Mueller also inhabits “Both Sides Now” (Joni Mitchell) which arrives with palpable sensitivity. There’s a small, organic shrug on “…it’s cloud’s illusions I recall…” drawing us in. Her pristine voice wafts high or cottony. Solo cello embellishment is utterly lovely.
Will Chase delivers a robust “Ring of Fire” (June Carter/Merle Kilgore) as a hoedown with the taste of Mariachi brass. His Kentucky accent feels at home. John Lennon’s “Imagine” is uncluttered, rather thin, but sweet. I find this performer sincere, but stiff without the character direction he’s given in musicals.
Adrienne Warren, another r & b maven, unearths a sob in her voice as if it comes completely natural to her. Alicia Keys’s “If I Ain’t Got You” is straight from the hip. Warren literally leans into the lyric. “If I ain’t gotcha with me baybabahahahabeeee…” she sings. In Act II, the vocalist demonstrates range by offering an Adele song sung from her chest and one by Aretha which emerges from her throat. You can hear the interesting difference.
All the artists take vocal turns for Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” to which the audience immediately starts clapping time, a bouncy “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (Nickolas Ashford/Valerie Simpson), and Carol King’s iconic “You’ve Got a Friend,” an appropriate finale.
Songs, one gathers, were selected by vocalists without particular cohesion. The evening provided a raft of memories for some of us and a varied glimpse of the times for others.
Opening Photo: Chris Jackson, Jessie Mueller, Will Chase, Adrienne Warren
Carnegie Hall presents The New York Pops You’re Got a Friend: A Celebration of Singers and Songwriters Steven Reineke- Musical Director/Conductor April 21, 2017 NY Pops 34th Birthday Gala Tickets now on sale for May 1, 2017
People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.
Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep in a performance that while not necessarily Oscar worthy is certainly charming) was a talented young concert pianist who dreamed of playing at Carnegie Hall. Unfortunately an injury to her hands killed that dream, so Florence decided to go to Carnegie Hall as a singer. There was, however, one problem: Florence couldn’t sing. She was not only bad she was unbelievably, almost hysterically terrible, a fact her nearest and dearest were determined to shield her from.
Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Queen) directs this quaint, bittersweet, little bio which serves as a fable as well. We live in a culture that constantly tells us to follow our hearts and pursue our dreams no matter what. But what if like kindly, sweet, generous, dedicated, but tone deaf Florence, your striving to do something you just can’t do? Scenes of Florence singing aren’t just hard on the ears, they take Cringe Comedy to all new levels. And isn’t indulging her denial just setting her up for a greater fall, as Florence, convinced of her greatness, books a night in Carnegie Hall?
Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant
These are the questions that come to haunt Florence’s chief enablers; her adoring husband, failed actor St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), and her accompanist, Cosmo McMoon (Simon Helberg of The Big Bang Theory almost unrecognizable here and shockingly good in his first major big screen debut). While Cosmo fears his involvement with Florence dooms his chances of ever being taken seriously as a musician, St. Clair has a host of other complications. Florence and he adore each other, but having contracted syphilis from her first husband, their marriage must remain celibate and indeed St. Clair lives in a separate home with his beautiful young mistress, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson of The Girl on the Train).
As Florence’s health declines, St. Clair feels obligated to make her final days a happy dream. Hugh Grant reportedly came out of retirement just to work with Meryl Streep and it was well worth it. The man may have more grey hair and wrinkles than he did when he first charmed his way into American hearts as a gorgeous British leading man in Four Weddings and a Funeral, but he’s lost none of his charm, his comedic timing and, if anything, his skills at drama have only gotten better with time. It’s his best performance in years. Florence Foster Jenkins is not just the tale of a woman who couldn’t sing, but a love story for grown-ups.
“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” sang Essential Voices USA with the kind of strapping vocal that conjured a Hollywood production number starring Norwegian figure skater/ film star, Sonja Henie.
In its 34th season, The New York Pops celebrated upcoming holidaze with an evening of rousing, homey cheer. Inspired by the iconic film White Christmas, the Pops’ Director/Conductor Steven Reineke invited two sets of siblings to perform perennial material culminating in the iconic Irving Berlin songs once sung in the film by Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby.
Ann Hampton Callaway and Liz Callaway wearing a closet full of stylish, festive gowns shared the stage with Will and Anthony Nunziata for whose distracting sequined jackets and bespoke shoes one needed sunglasses.
‘This time of year, everyone of every age and every walk of life knows the same songs,” noted Hampton Callaway swinging seamlessly into an Ella Fitzgerald arrangement of “Winter Wonderland.” As always, the vocalist added her own nuanced stamp -an octave rose and slid, a ritard affected… It’s happy and a bit sassy. Later, she rendered William Schermerhorn/Westley Whatley’s story/song “Yes, Virginia”, about Virginia O’Hanlon who, in 1897, wrote to The New York Sun and was told in no uncertain terms, Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Performance glows with warmth and was not, for a minute, over the top. First violinist Cenovia Cummins added immeasurably.
Liz Callaway offered two songs from Lynn Ahrens/Steve Flaherty’s Anastasia for which she voiced Anya in the animated version. (The musical comes to Broadway this spring). Stepping into character like a fur coat, the actress rises, expressive and expansive, to lush melodies and yearning lyrics. Particularly appropriate this year, “Grown Up Christmas List” (David Foster/Linda Thompson Foster) emerges with sincere depth of spirit: No more lives torn apart/That wars would never start/And time would heal all hearts/And everyone would have a friend…
Nodding to the music teacher in tonight’s audience who gave him his first solo age 7, Will Nunziata sang “The Christmas Song” with sincerity and gently warbling vibrato. Twin, Anthony Nunziata rendered his grandmother’s favorite, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” in honor of his grandfather and those who continue to serve abroad. In Act II, The brothers gave us John Bucchino/Michael Feinstein’s charming, as-if-written-for-them “Carnegie Hall” -both were making their Hall debut and the heartfelt, co-authored “The Gift Is You” which might refer as easily to their mother as Jesus Christ.
To my mind, there were two highlights: Ann Hampton Callaway and Liz Callaway’s gorgeous, original, harmonized duet of “Silent Night”/”Mary, Did You Know?” which rose to the rafters with palpable devotion and, new to me, “The Chanukah Song” (Stephen Schwartz/Steven Young), as rendered by Essential Voices USA, which movingly embraced principles as well as season with brotherhood and gratitude.
A White Christmas Medley covered everything from “Happy Holiday” to “The Best Things Happen When You’re Dancing” as all four guests enthusiastically contributed. “Sisters,” was, of course, particularly apt. The ladies had an infectiously good time.
“We Need a Little Christmas” (from Mame) emerged a Jerry Herman wet dream- long, glorified and multi-layered as performed by The New York Pops and Essential Voices USA. Scrooge would’ve imploded on the spot.
Celebratory to the Nth degree, running smooth as an ice pirouette, the evening was peppered by welcome anecdotes and personal memories. Only Sound Design somewhat marred . Orchestra and chorus too often swallowed vocalists.
Photos by Maryann Lopinto
The New York Pops: Make the Season Bright Steven Reineke-Music Director/Conductor Essential Voices USA-Judith Clurman Music Director/Conductor Guest Artists: Ann Hampton Callaway, Liz Callaway, Will Nunziata, Anthony Nunziata Carnegie Hall December 16, 2016 New York Pops Calendar