by Matt Smith
There are few who would refute, as maestro Steven Reineke claims, that the incomparable Rodgers and Hammerstein were indeed “one of the greatest songwriting duos in musical theatre history.” The least of which being a New York audience, and that’s why it was, aptly, more than just “some enchanted evening” last Friday night when the New York Pops returned to their hallowed Carnegie Hall for a sweeping musical tribute to the celebrated pair.
Revamped from an earlier 2015 Pops concert which also feted the unmatched composer-lyricists, the 2020 edition, expertly arranged by Reineke himself, boasted a slew of robust selections from all eleven of their professional collaborations, cleverly presented in chronological order from the year they were initially written.
Aided by two of Broadway’s most prominent three-named beauties, Max von Essen and Laura Michelle Kelly, along with the resonant and resounding Essential Voices USA, the orchestra was provided the perfect platform to showcase the pair’s eclectic catalogue of now-legendary material. And they did not disappoint.
Our soloists, for two, are in deliciously full form throughout the evening, as complementary to each other in duets (Oklahoma!’s “People Will Say We’re in Love” particularly notable), just as strongly as they are able to fervently hold the room in their own respective solo numbers. Kelly, appropriately taking on the songs traditionally sung by R&H’s strong-willed women, dazzles with Flower Drum Song’s bouncy ode to the female, “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” as she does with “The Gentleman is a Dope,” (from the lesser-known, and admittedly financially unsuccessful, Allegro, and South Pacific’s “A Wonderful Guy,” dedicated to her new and wonderful husband and even newer, wonderful son.
von Essen, tasked with the classic repertoire of the men, moves the room, first with a stirring “Some Enchanted Evening” and later, with a tender, intimate “Edelweiss,” whose intimacy, already established by the luscious sound of strings of the orchestra, was further embraced by von Essen’s invitation enticing the audience to sing along.
Angelic voices aside, what was particularly moving about seeing these two bright lights take the stage was how visibly floored they were to be singing at the legendary venue. Beaming at the prospect that they’ve actually “made it,” an astute observer could see they took time, like giddy little school kids to internalize the experience and breathe it all in, from how it looks, to how it smells to, most importantly, how it feels. They make it no secret that they appreciate the opportunity, and because of that, we appreciate them even more.
Of course, as mentioned, the evening is not limited to their delicate dulcet tones alone. Equally full-sounding were the members of the aforementioned consummate choral group, led with verve by stalwart musical director Judith Clurman, whose eclectic offerings, ranging from “It’s a Grand Night for Singing” and “I Whistle a Happy Tune” to “There is Nothing Like a Dame” and “Do Re Mi,” were peppered with inventive and spirited choreography, eliciting laughter and applause for evoking the whimsy of the musical style in which they were written.
And the orchestra remains unbeatable, delighting us in all its 78-piece glory, with the suites from Carousel and Cinderella, the infectious main title from Oklahoma!, and that booming King and I overture, the seductive and spine-tingling nostalgia it evokes only further punctuated by the decision to bathe the backdrop in a soothing, deep crimson red.
But while each of these supporting players is remarkably radiant in their own right, where they flourished with flying colors – the real artistic triumph of the evening – occurred when they all came together, resulting in an electrifying fusion of choir and soloist, rich voice and resounding instrument, beautifully blending within one another to create a hauntingly elegant result. Equally pertinent are the songs themselves – “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel and The Sound of Music’s “Climb Every Mountain,” from whose lyric the evening gets its titular appendage, “Find Your Dream” – prominent for the messages they carry, their significance undoubtedly a driving factor in the decision to include them in the program, let alone perform them as full company numbers. Championing hope and perseverance despite all odds, they collectively remind their listeners that those we lose live with us forever, and that we all have the power and strength to upturn every stone, forge every path, and conquer every obstacle seemingly in our way.
And, in looking at the evening as a whole, that’s the point. It’s why von Essen and Kelly stand beaming center stage, having overcome personal fears (not to mention whatever professional obstacles they faced) to finally play solo at the famed Carnegie Hall. It’s why the Essential Voices USA are rising with cheer, elated to be given the chance to sing. It’s why we’re gathered, celebrating the entire scope of the R&H catalogue – two men who continually bounced back from serious financial and artistic failures… who re-invented the genre, whose gargantuan risks resulted in the greatest, most iconic showtunes in musical theatre history. It’s ultimately, again, why it’s so fitting that the evening was affixed with this advice, a lyric from their final collaboration together following 16 years together, which Reineke was so thoughtful to choose to be the grand finale of the evening…. an evening which, in its entirety, acts as a lesson, exemplifying the amazing rewards you can reap, relationships you can form, and magic you can make when you “follow every rainbow ‘til you find you dream.”
Photos: Richard Termine
Find Your Dream: The Songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein was presented January 24th, 2020 at Carnegie Hall (57th Street and 7th Avenue). For more information regarding future Pops performances, please visit www.carnegiehall.org or www.newyorkpops.org.