The Houston Symphony alone would have been reason enough to draw a huge crowd to the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion last Thursday, on a late summer evening that had been cooled by afternoon rain. But add to that the attraction of an eclectic program of classic tunes from Broadway musicals, plus the vocal excellence of the Houston Gay Men’s Chorus, and you have the kind of entertainment dynamite that should probably require added security before it explodes on stage. Featured Broadway veterans on the program included: Robert Evan (who has appeared on Broadway in Les Miserable, Jekyll & Hyde and Little Shop of Horrors), Capathia Jenkins, (who made her Broadway debut in The Civil War), Julia Murney, (who last appeared on Broadway as Elphaba in Wicked), and Hugh Panaro (who played the Phantom in the Broadway production of The Phantom of the Opera, and returns to Broadway next week to once again take up that same role).
At 8 pm sharp, conductor Michael Krajewski walked briskly to the podium, and, without a moment’s hesitation, launched his fine musicians into the calming introduction for a “Medley from Jesus Christ Superstar.” The rich orchestration seemed a reminder of how popular music can sometimes evolve into a symphonic classic, and as the piece continued our star vocalists of the evening came onstage to close the medley with an exquisite, “Don’t Know How to Love Him.” Next came a sudden surprise as the Houston Gay Men’s Chorus, standing on risers behind the orchestra, suddenly burst forth with a brief but thrilling taste of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” from Handel’s Messiah. Then our quartet of high-energy Broadway performers joined the fine orchestra and superb chorus for a rousing “Brand New Day,” from The Wiz.
Miss Murney, with a sudden and amusing change in coiffure, took to the spotlight for a perky rendition of “Good Morning Baltimore,” from Hairspray. Her Broadway peers did fine back up, as did the excellent chorus. Speaking of the chorus, they brought a powerful atmosphere of mystery to a performance of “Circle of Life,” from The Lion King. It featured strong solo moments from Murney, Panaro, and the confident and beaming Miss Jenkins. She would be a joyful light and brilliant vocalist throughout the program, and her vocal perfection was fully on display in John Fogerty’s song, “Proud Mary,” soon to be featured in the new musical, What’s Love Got to Do With It? The audience burst from its seats in a roaring standing ovation.
I suspect Miss Jenkins must have burned down many a gospel church with her electrifying voice, and here she redefines the phrase, “Red-Hot Mama,” with the red-hot moves to match.
With all the performers in high gear, the concert continued with the title tune from Mama Mia, along with another hit from the show, a thrilling rendition of “Dancing Queen.” And there were more musical thrills in another Hairspray number, “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” Our playful and talented foursome was creating infectious excitement and having a ball on stage, and like most audience members, I longed for the courage to be dancing in the aisles. The house was in a joyous uproar, and when the piece ended Krajewski gave me the title for my story as he turned to the audience and shouted, “Wow!”
The “Overture” and “Pinball Wizard” from Broadway’s 1993 rock musical, The Who’s Tommy, were probably less familiar to most in the audience, and they were quickly forgotten when Jenkins returned in a gorgeous and glittering gown to hit yet another homerun. This time it was the Gloria Gaynor song, “I Will Survive,” and I found my mind wandering back to a little nightclub in Torremolinos, Spain, where I saw Miss Gaynor perform that number in the early 1980’s.
With another song from Superstar, and in another mood entirely, Mr. Evan performed the song “Gethsemane.” While just a bit uneven at times, Evan emerged triumphant with his very theatrical depiction of the agonizing passion of The Christ. It hit some musically dramatic high notes that must have reached the very heavens themselves. Reaching for the heavens as well was Miss Murney, who returned to the stage in a striking gown of emerald green satin, to beautifully perform “Defying Gravity” from the show, Wicked. Then Jenkins, with arms outstretched to an audience embracing her brilliance, crafted an elegant and ever-escalating, “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” from Dreamgirls.
Just when I was thinking no one could top this, Panaro returned to deliver a hauntingly beautiful “Music of the Night,” from The Phantom of the Opera. I have seen the show twice on Broadway and once in Las Vegas, but this Phantom topped them all with the purest of theatrical and vocal power. Panaro is quite ready for his soon return to the Great White Way as his thunderous standing ovation made very clear.
The fun filled encore returned the chorus and guest stars to the stage as flower children dressed in funky rainbow colored and tie-died clothing of the 1960’s, and with long hair to match. And Hair was the order of the day as that show’s tunes, “Aquarius,” and “Let the Sunshine In,” burst across the stage and out into the appreciative audience where members of the chorus had just about everyone singing.
Houston Symphony returns to Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion on Thursday September 30th at 8 p.m. with a performance of works by Stravinsky, Barber, and Holst in a program titled, “The Planets – An HD Odyssey.” For tickets and information call 281-363-3300, or visit the website at www.woodlandscenter.org.