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
34th Birthday Gala Tickets now on sale for May 1, 2017
John Kander (1927-) and Fred Ebb (1928-2004) were introduced in 1962 and collaborated on their first Broadway musical, Flora the Red Menace (introducing Liza Minnelli) in 1965. Career highlights include the iconic may-run-forever Cabaret, successively revived Chicago- (both made into films), Lauren Bacall’s transition from film to theater in Woman of the Year, and the formidable Scottsboro Boys. The multifaceted team also wrote “New York, New York”, arguably our city anthem- the theme to Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film of the same name.
Certain music from Kander’s oeuvre is so evocative of memorable theater, it makes the hairs on one’s arm stand at attention. The Pop’s opening, Suite from Chicago does just that. Some of the audience bob in their seats or tap their feet, others mouth lyrics. More than an era or city, Kander and Ebb (here with Bob Fosse) captured an ethos of gleefully celebrated corruption uncomfortably familiar today. I suspect Cabaret continues to pack them in for the same reason. The shows are not just innovative and entertaining, they’re resonant.
John Kander in the balcony. To his right, director Susan Stroman
Tonight’s Guest Vocalists are both young Broadway veterans.
Cassie Leavy has a smooth, confident voice that can unfurl with moderation or belt, though she seems audibly more at home with the latter. She has stage presence. Results, however, are mixed: “Mein Herr” and “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret, lack pathos and bite. “Roxy” (Chicago) and “Everybody’s Girl” (Steel Pier) are missing their innately wicked play. One wonders whether the youthful performer understands the songs’ context.
More contemporary, ‘Ring Them Bells” (Liza with a Z) and “Colored Lights” (The Rink) fare better. Leavy embodies pluck and exasperation attributable to the first song’s protagonist. With the second, we feel hope and ambition as her voice lilts and loops with sweet, trailing vibrato.
Tony Yazbeck rushes through the terrific “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup” (70 Girls, 70) -due to speedy arrangement that robs the number authenticity and delivers a couple of songs as Billy Flynn from Chicago, a role to which he’s imminently returning, with no discernible charisma.
Tony Yazbeck, Steven Reineke, Cassie Levy
Act II, however, sees a complete transformation. Yazbeck’s delicate “Sometimes a Day Goes By” (Woman of the Year) with only piano accompaniment, is eminently tender and touching. “You, You, You” (The Visit) follows suit with palpable yearning. Both of these showcase the performer’s emotional tenor. Yazbeck then offers this evening’s zenith, “City Lights” (The Act) during which, having infectious fun, he grows fully animated, even engaging in loosey goosey, complex tap dance.
In addition to a sassy overture, The New York Pops Orchestra excels with “Hot Honey Rag” (Chicago) which grins, twirls, and flips its hat in textured musical layers and a powerful, lush rendition of “The Minstrel March” (The Scottsboro Boys).
Music Director/Conductor Steven Reineke keeps us abreast of each song’s origin with a bit of amiable patter. At his suggestion, we sing “Happy Birthday” to John Kander, spot-lit in the balcony. Far from retired, the honoree’s Kid Victory (written with Greg Pierce) is playing at New York’s Vineyard Theatre. He’s now at work on The Beast of The Jungle, based on a novella by Henry James.
John Kander celebrates his 90th Birthday on March 18. We honor both his partnership and continuing high craft.
Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Tony Yazbeck, Cassie Levy
NEXT for The New York Pops:
You’ve Got a Friend: A Celebration of Singers and Songwriters- April 21, 2017
Carnegie Hall presents
The New York Pops
Steven Reineke-Music Director and Conductor
Guest Artists: Cassie Levy, Tony Yazbeck
Life Is a Cabaret: The Songs of Kander and Ebb