By DAVID DOW BENTLEY III “The People’s Critic”
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As one of the world’s premier outdoor amphitheaters since Frank Sinatra was its Grand Opening star on April 28, 1990, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands, Texas, has had no shortage of blockbuster talents gracing its stage. And while Elvis Presley had long before predeceased the arrival of this splendid venue, it seemed very much as though he arrived there last Wednesday night. Now, “tribute” concerts celebrating departed superstars are not uncommon, and often they are very good. Just this month I had the pleasure of reviewing fine such events honoring both Johnny Cash and Buddy Holly. But this Pavilion production titled, “Symphonic Tribute to Elvis,” brought the concept to a whole new level.
Pairing the magnificent Houston Symphony with the extraordinary talent of renowned Presley tribute artist, Patrick Dunn, was most certainly a “match made in heaven.” It is no surprise then, that in 2021 at the Presley estate, Graceland, Mr. Dunn was crowned, “The Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist,” by none other than the Elvis Presley Enterprises organization.
As warm pastel lighting danced on the walls surrounding the musicians, the concert opened with the orchestra’s performance of, “A Tribute to the King,” a beautiful medley of classic Presley hits that made it fun for audience members trying to identify each tune. (Arr. Ted Ricketts). Then the thunderous kettle drums would punctuate the orchestra’s performance of R. Strauss’, “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” the thrilling music that always accompanied Presley’s arrival on stage. Mr. Dunn then arrived in a bejeweled and sparkling black jumpsuit that would be a winner at any rodeo, and his opener, “That’s Alright,” quickly affirmed his Presley-esque vocal credentials. His wiggling gyrations during, “Burnin’ Love,” would be a feature throughout the evening, and the richness of his voice would be on full display for, “Sweet Caroline.” The pavilion sound designers had everything so beautifully balanced that even during the explosive excitement of, “It’s Now or Never,” the delicate piano accents could be clearly heard as that song raced toward the power of its amazing conclusion.
Dunn’s skill as a musical storyteller was evident during the tender warmth of, “I Just Can’t Help Believing,” and his resonant vocal control for the mellow opening of, “What Now My Love,” would contrast dramatically with its sensational close. Then there would be audience frenzy from screaming young girls who would besiege the stage as the star began giving out many of his trademark silk scarves during both, “All Shook Up,” and “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling.” There was playful audience interaction for, “One Night With You,” and the soaring vocal power of, “Bridge Over Troubled Water, was absolutely breathtaking. The first act closed with the lesser known, but very beautiful, “If I Can Dream,” which Elvis performed for a 1968 TV special following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
After the intermission, Dunn returned to the stage in a cool white jumpsuit that sparkled with jeweled accents, as he launched into a very hot, “Blue Suede Shoes.” A passionate “Kentucky Rain,” would follow, but somehow the orchestra and vocal were off balance in a way that made much of that lyric difficult to discern. That misstep was quickly forgotten as Dunn moved on to his warm, embracing, “Love Me Tender,” with its elegant orchestration and stunning climax.
The star then shared the interesting story of how Presley had ended his long tenure in Las Vegas, and then made his first on-the-road stop in 1974, the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, where he opened with the Sinatra classic, “My Way.” Dunn’s performance of that classic brought wild applause. Then, with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy, it was full steam ahead for the song, “Suspicious Minds,” and the poignant images of the touching, “In the Ghetto.” A crackling rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel,” would give way to a soothing, “Amazing Grace,” that lifted the audience heavenward with the help of the star’s two talented backup singers. There were also two gifted, guitar-playing sidemen throughout this great evening of music, presided over by by the show’s brilliant arranger/conductor, Brian English, as he skillfully led the Houston Symphony from the podium. There would be more of the expected delights like, “Hound Dog,” and “Jailhouse Rock,” and then the ultimate display of Presley vocal power with Dunn’s astonishing, “Unchained Melody.” With all of that, the Veterans in the audience were not forgotten as they were invited to stand during the conductor’s beautifully patriotic arrangement of, “American Trilogy.” And perhaps the icing on the cake came during the show’s final moments, as the near full house audience, stretching up and down the surrounding pavilion hillsides, was invited to raise and wave their cell phones and flashlights to accompany Dunn’s wonderful closing number, “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.” That sentiment was certainly greatly reciprocated by the grateful crowd.
CIRQUE DE LA SYMPHONIE will be the Houston Symphony’s next Pavilion event at 8pm on July 20th, 2023. For tickets and information call 713-224-7575, or visit www.HoustonSymphony.org . The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion is located at 2005 Lake Robbins Drive, The Woodlands, TX. 77380
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 E-mail may be directed to ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com