By Erik Jonathan Shuler (@ErikJShuler)
Last Friday, Carnegie Hall’s legendary Stern Auditorium was abuzz, with patrons eager for the opening of the latest season of the New York Pops, which, following tradition of recent years, commenced as maestro Steven Reineke took the stage with his incredible energy and flair, and an excitement mirroring that of the audience; he satisfying demand with an overture–in this case, kicking off the songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and setting the stage for their special guests: Broadway star Sierra Boggess and stage and screen star Julian Ovenden, backed by Judith Clurman’s Essential Voices USA.
The evening’s schedule was laid out as a chronological tour through each of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s eleven collaborations together, celebrating their canon with at least one song from each show, and fleshing out their more popular productions with larger sets. The New York Pops were featured from the beginning, with a beautiful interpretation of the cinematic “Overture” from the film version of Oklahoma. The Pops had quite a few opportunities to showcase their fineness, in fact, and not get lost behind their special guests, which has happened at past shows given the celebrity caliber of visiting guests: with the “Overture” to The King and I, and waltzes from Carousel and Cinderella, which highlight both the orchestra’s careful understanding of the rich music, and Rodgers’ youthful and animated dance pieces. The Pops provided an overwhelming “Prologue” from The Sound of Music film, embracing the complex dissonance of the opening moments, and further embellishing the gorgeous tones of the familiar tune with a strong string section.
In addition to leading the exciting bill of songs, Reineke carried his incredible energy throughout the evening, physically pouring his emotions into the music. Reineke also served as an excellent master of ceremonies and theatrical historian. Between sets, he shared a dramaturgical background for the shows, and provided a context for the songs with an obvious level of respect.
Oscar Hammerstein’s equally infectious lyrics were brought to life through the vocal talents of Boggess, Ovenden, and Judith Clurman’s Essential Voices USA. Boggess, who is currently transitioning between two contemporary Broadway productions–from It Shoulda Been You to School of Rock–had the fortunate opportunity to share the effortless and agreeable offerings of her instrument with the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Her operatic sensibility organically lends itself to rich melodies of “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “The Sound of Music,” and a stirring “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Ms. Boggess is very in-tune with the stories laid out in the songs, and tells them with a caring subtlety in the soft soprano of her voice; she enjoys and fully experiences each note. She has a surprisingly quirky character, which shone in her portrayal of “Knucklehead Nellie,” as she sang an energetic, infectious “Wonderful Guy” from South Pacific. “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” a song that could have been written for her, was performed as a tease, with Boggess coquettishly toying with the audience and agreeably celebrating her femininity. She offered a nice contrast in her deeper, earthy notes with Allegro’s “The Gentleman is a Dope,” remaining true to her natural character and instincts in her interpretation.
Julian Ovenden, a popular British stage and screen actor who has worked with Boggess on a variety of projects, did a very fine job stepping in for the previously announced Steven Pasquale. Ovenden has a strong, open instrument which is beautifully represented in the upper registers of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” and “I Have Dreamed.” Although he occasionally struggled with some of the lower notes in songs like “Some Enchanted Evening” and especially “Soliloquy” from Carousel, he allowed the story to carry him through the music; a nod to the ingenious collaboration of Rodgers and Hammerstein, who blended their independent art forms into such unified works, which supported and strengthened each other’s. Ovenden’s performance, though not as polished, was a complement to Ms. Boggess’. Their voices blended with a pleasing ease, and created appropriate imagery to awaken the spirit of the classic music. Together, they brought to life to an often overlooked piece, “No Other Love” from Me and Juliet, sang a definitive “People Will Say We’re in Love,” and concluded the evening with a worthy and moving duet of “Climb Every Mountain.” They were supported in the finale by the Essential Voices USA, which added a lot of power to this and Carousel’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Their voices are wonderfully cohesive and directed, and they exude a fun energy and reverence for the evening throughout. They were, however, a bit misused in their awkward choral arrangement of “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” which brought little to the evening, and sat out of sync with the rest of the contextualized tunes. The gentlemen’s “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” was sloppy at times, but boyishly entertaining and explored a different side to the music of these two great, musical theatre masters.