Sunday, May 23, 2010

Irving Berlin: From Ragtime to Ritzes

Last week, May 15 to be exact, was another great evening of music with the National Arts Centre Orchestra as they presented their final Pops concert of the season, splendidly conducted, as usual, by Maestro Jack Everly.  The programs title appears to have changed from when it was first announced, with "Ragtime" being replaced with just "Rags".  Personally, I like the "Ragtime" since Irving Berlin's first big hit was "Alexander's Ragtime Band".  Also a wonderful movie which I watched this past week twice!

It seems quite an undertaking to boil down over 1500 songs (which is just the published number, apparently Irving Berlin wrote over 3000, talk about a prolific writer) to a two hour concert, yet Mr. Everly and his team have done a wonderful job!  Medleys abounded yet it never felt short changed with just choruses, and several songs even included some less familiar verses.  I counted 37 different songs, not including any snippets that may have been hidden between the main themes.  The show had all the classics from “White Christmas” to “Oh How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning” and even a few I hadn’t heard before.  One advantage of having so many songs to choose from is that perhaps this show can live an extended life by swapping new ones in.  For example, "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" in  the holiday medley, or "Something to Dance About" in with the other dance songs.  Maybe even "It's a Lovely Day Today" mixed with "Blue Skies"?  So many options exist!

The cast of singers was phenomenal.  Tony DeSare held his own among the other Broadway veterans, although seemed more at home during his two piano numbers.  He played both without music and I believe I detected a bit of "Rhapsody in Blue" mixed in with "I Love a Piano".  It also had a great little swinging clarinet line (I'm always listening for those!) from Mr. Sykes.   I expect Tony really shone during his post concert Cabaret.   

The "Sisters" medley was lots of fun and included "You're Just in Love" (one of my favourites from Call Me Madame with Ethel Merman and Donald O'Connor) and "You’d Be Surprised" which I hadn't heard before. Natasha Yvette Williams performed it so well!  I've been searching for a recording and haven't been able to find anything as well sung or acted as her version.   Ashley Brown (the original Mary Poppins on Broadway) has a lovely voice and looked stunning throughout the evening.  If only I lived in Indianapolis as she's doing "Ashley Brown's Broadway" with the Indianapolis Symphony next season, which is sure to have some fine music.  It was great to hear Hugh Panaro again too.  He was just as enjoyable as when he debuted with the NACO in "Guys and Dolls: In Concert".  The lively footwork and singing of James T. Lane was extremely entertaining.  The whole ensemble together had a sound that blended well.  Ashley and the men in "Heat Wave" generated a strong reaction from the audience, as did the "Easter Parade" section of the "Holiday Medley" courtesy of James's Easter bunny.

Maestro Everly was also in fine form.  It's clear he really enjoys this music and, while always fantastic to watch, if possible appeared even more animated than usual.  His knowledge of the repertoire is obviously very vast and the delivery so honest.  This was evidenced by his introduction to "Remember" where he described that Berlin gave the rights to three of his songs to his future wife in an attempt to win the favour of his eventual father-in-law.  Mr. Everly listed "Remember" and "Always" then without missing a beat admitted he couldn't recall the third one.  We never did find out what it was.  Was anyone there on Thurs. or Fri. night that could fill me in?  Additionally, his concluding thanks to the orchestra, other staff, and audience ("we couldn't do it without you, well we could but it wouldn't be nearly as much fun" :) ) was completely genuine.

The closing numbers for the first and second halves were flipped from what was listed in the program.  A wise decision, since "Irving Berlin's America" (a medley including "This is the Army, Mr. Jones", "How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning", and of course "God Bless America"), which was the original finale, really had that USA patriotic feel to it right down to the men in white and the ladies in red and blue dresses.  Granted Berlin was a strong patriot, but I appreciated leaving singing "Puttin’ on the Ritz" rather than "God Bless America", even if they did make it more inclusive by sliding a "North America" into the last refrain.
To quote a song that appeared in a few section throughout the evening and has become the show biz anthem, “The costumes (they were fabulous, especially the finale dresses which gave that elegant white tie and tails look so well), the scenery (who needs it with such a great orchestra? but there were even banners depicting various songs), the make-up (the performers all looked beautiful), the props (does a Santa hat, Easter bunny, baton or instrument count?), this show had it all.  As for “an audience that lifts you when you’re down”, with such a wonderful evening of great music and two standing ovations, I don’t know who could have left unhappy.

Thanks NACO for a great season of popular music!

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