I had a wonderful surprise last Saturday night at Conroe’s elegant Crighton Theatre. It had been just exactly one week since my reviewing a sensational Sinatra Centennial concert at Houston’s Jones Hall when the orchestra’s very special guest vocalists were Tony DeSare and Montego Glover. It would be a memorable celebration of the music of Old Blue Eyes (review available at www.ThePeoplesCritic.com), and as I headed to the Crighton I mistakenly thought that perhaps the smaller house and orchestra might seem to diminish the Montgomery County Performing Arts Tribute to FRANK SINATRA that I was about to attend. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The MCPAS event featured a magnificent 10-piece big band and starred powerhouse Las Vegas vocalist, Steve Lippia. No one could have better served to represent the wide-ranging talent of the late legendary crooner whose 100th birthday is being widely celebrated this year.
The evening would be more than just a concert from a master vocalist, it would be a virtual seminar on the memorable career and music of Mr. Sinatra. Lippia opened with a jazzy, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” and then began describing Sinatra’s great influence on music with 1500 recordings. He took the audience back to 1939 while bringing crisp and elegant articulation to a soaring and smooth rendition of Frank’s first hit, “All, or Nothing at All.” I was immediately struck by the artist’s seemingly effortless control and phrasing, both hallmarks of the Sinatra style. There were stories of Frank’s boyhood Hoboken dreams of one day singing in the visible Big Apple across the Hudson. Those dreams would begin to come true when Harry James brought Sinatra on board with his band. The lush warmth of Lippia’s, “I’ll Never Smile Again,” was solid and seductive, while beautifully accented with a superb trombone solo from the band.
Next we moved on to the Tommy Dorsey era of Sinatra’s career with Lippia’s “Without a Song,” beautifully displaying the kind of breath control and phrasing that Dorsey had taught his star vocalist. That skill was especially notable in the delicacy of delivery for some of the rather long notes closing particular phrases in that lovely song. As Lippia launched into the beautiful, “Don’t Worry ‘bout Me,” I began to realize why this concert was working in a very different, yet very wonderful way, relative to what I had experienced the week before in Jones Hall. Here it was the intimacy of this beautiful old 1930 Crighton Theatre. It allowed the audience a special connection with the star and the orchestra that a huge auditorium simply could not provide. Lippia even displayed the kind of confident and commanding stage presence one could associate with Sinatra, adding elements of humor as well: “I’d like to thank Frank for making all of my songs such huge hits!” He even joked about the good old days “when adults wrote songs with amazing things like melodies and harmonies.”
Classy songs seemed to cascade one upon another, and with that much class, Lippia’s black suit over black tee-shirt should have rated the classic tuxedo Sinatra would have worn. My only other complaint would be the heavy focus given to the fine piano player while Lippia sang a wonderful rendition of the classic saloon song, “One For My Baby.” A faintly tinkling piano is required for that song, but it is not meant to be a costar in this tale of heartbreak. On the other hand, Lippia’s resounding, “Old Man River,” could bring a tear to the eye, and I have never heard the intro to that song done with such perfect clarity. There was a swinging, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” with more amazingly seamless phrasing, with another great trombone solo.
Then it was on to the 1950’s and Sinatra’s work with the great arranger, Nelson Riddle. A dreamy “Summer Wind,” was gently romantic and ended in a whisper. There was a soaring, “Strangers in the Night,” that could just about lift the audience heavenward right out of their seats. And speaking of soaring, “Come Fly With me,” was another winner as Lippia reflected on Sinatra’s years with the Rat Pack in Las Vegas, and then knocked out a sensational, “Fly Me to the Moon.” Billy Joel’s tender, “Just the Way You Are,” would follow, and a commanding “Luck Be a Lady,” was more about supreme talent than luck.
As the end drew near, the sheer elegance of Lippia’s performance of, “My Way,” erased any thought that no one could ever sing like Sinatra. Further proof came in encores of a hand-clapping, “New York, New York,” and the perfect nightcap of, “Put Your Dreams Away.” I found myself with a dream of my own. If Frank Sinatra could have been on the stage that night and somehow magically sung with the voice of Steve Lippia, no one would have thought that anything was wrong.
Next up for the Montgomery County Performing Arts Society will be the YOUNG TEXAS ARTISTS FINALISTS’ CONCERT and AWARDS on March 12, 2016 at 7:30 P.M. For tickets and information call 936-441-7469.