Perfectly timed to coincide with this month’s Hollywood excitement of the Academy Awards ceremony, the recent Houston Symphony concert titled The Oscars®: Best Original Songs was surely an award-winner in the opinion of those fortunate to be in the Jones Hall audience for a memorable night of music. As though the orchestra (brilliantly led by conductor, Steven Reineke) was not enough of a treat for the evening, enriching things even further were the contributions of two veteran Broadway musical stars, Ashley Brown and Hugh Panaro. The combination would be irresistible, as was the orchestra’s thunderous and very appropriate opener, “Hooray for Hollywood.”
Next came the excitement of a thrilling selection from Korngold’s memorable, ”Symphonic Suite” for The Adventures of Robin Hood, highlighted by the orchestra’s powerful brass and the sweetness of the strings.
Then the beautiful Miss Brown took to the stage sounding much like a brilliant opera singer during her magnificent rendition of “Feed the Birds,” from Mary Poppins. It was Brown herself who originated the role of Mary in the Broadway musical based on the Disney film. Renowned for his more than 2000 performances as The Phantom in Broadway’s, The Phantom of the Opera, the tall and handsome Mr. Panaro followed with a resonant and hypnotic “If Ever I Would Leave You,” from Alan J. Lerner’s Camelot. It beautifully demonstrated his wide vocal range and impressive breath control. When the gifted duo combined forces for Sondheim’s “Balcony Scene (Tonight)” from West Side Story, the magic was nothing short of sublime during smooth, passionate and ever-rising tempos that were beautifully accented by the warbling magnificence and bird-like purity of Brown’s wonderful voice.
There was a new kind of excitement as the kettle drums thundered to announce the sweeping romanticism and exotic, oriental flavors of the Jarre/Schurmann, “Overture” for Lawrence of Arabia. Miss Brown then brought her own brand of sultry, rhythmic moves and bouncing joy to the Leslie Bricusse lyrics for “Le Jazz Hot” from Victor/Victoria. The number was slightly diminished by a brief shrillness from the audio.
Then came a new look at a familiar favorite as Panaro delivered a uniquely wondrous and thoughtful version of the Arlen/Barker classic, “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. It was so authoritative and original I found myself thinking, “Here is a man who has found his perfect place in the universe.” Act One then concluded beautifully as the vocalists paired again for a lush, warm duet of the title song from Alan Menken’s, Beauty and the Beast.
If anyone thought the orchestra had expended all its energy in that first half of the program, that notion was quickly dispelled when Act Two began with an absolutely stunning performance of Academy Award winner, Miklos Rózsa’s, “Parade of the Charioteers” from Ben-Hur. With lovely solo moment on piano from Scott Holshouser, Miss Brown offered an intensely visual interpretation of the Marvin Hamlisch classic, “The Way We Were,” that seemed a gentle whisper recalling a life. In a similar mood, Panaro offered a mesmerizing and spiritual moment with Schonberg’s mystical, “Bring Him Home,” from Les Misérables. Of course there was the sweeping grandeur of Nino Rota’s intoxicating “Love Theme” from The Godfather. Equally splendid was the heartbreaking beauty of John Williams’ “Theme” from Schindler’s List which featured an exquisite solo from the orchestra’s First Violinist, Eric Halen, and brought the audience to its feet for a much-deserved ovation. There were numerous other delights including the program closer, Mancini’s classic, “Moon River”, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with a solid duet of the Johnny Mercer lyric by our talented soloists of the evening. But the orchestra would rock the room one more time with a lively encore of, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” from Dirty Dancing. That phrase would pretty well sum up the night for us all.
The columns of David Dow Bentley III have appeared on Broadway websites, in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast, and may be viewed online at the website: www.ThePeoplesCritic.com. Email may be directed to ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com .