Maestro Bob Lappin and the Palm Beach Pops served up a Broadway buffet with a side dish of Hollywood Tuesday night at the Kravis Center for the debut of their fifth program of their 18th season, a tribute to the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. The evening offered inspired performances from the Pops musicians, as well as the guest soloists, vocalists Tamra Hayden and David Burnham, in a well-paced presentation that captivated the Kravis crowd.
Starting strong with Strings On Fire by Henry Mancini and a beautiful medley from Jerry Herman's La Cage Aux Folles, the orchestra came out of the gate running with the string section leading the way. Principal trumpeter Scott Melamerson brought a solemn touch to the middle section of the La Cage medley, which was equal parts majesty and uptown sass.
Lappin then introduced the soloists to the mix, starting with Burnham, who performed with the Pops most recently about a year ago. An accomplished stage actor, featured in the Broadway productions of Wicked and The Light In The Piazza, Burnham also proved to be a polished vocalist as well, wowing the audience with an emotional rendition of the ballad Bring Him Home from Les Miserables.
Next was Hayden, who has played the role of Cosette in Les Miz more than 1,800 times (including a stint on Broadway) and was the female lead in a national tour of Phantom of the Opera. Although this talented singer struggled a bit with I Dreamed A Dream — another tune from Les Miz now associated with YouTube megastar Susan Boyle — she fared much better in the second half.
Haunting 'Schindler's List'
Three strong entries rounded out the opening set, including an interesting audio experiment that paid off in spades.
Pops Concert Master and principal violinist Mary Rowell performed John Williams' haunting theme from the film Schindler's List, but without the use of any amplification. With the microphones off, Rowell's heart-wrenching performance easily poured out across the hall, supported by the natural "unplugged" mix of the rest of the orchestra — especially harpist Kay Kemper and principal cellist Cornelia Brubeck — resulting in a rare and exceptional listening experience.
Lappin moved to the piano to kick off the standard Time After Time, which evoked mental images of a montage from a Woody Allen romantic comedy, followed by the Pops' jazz take on Old Man River, with bassist Phil Flanigan and drummer Frank Derrick jumping in on the second pass in cut time.
Just when you thought the tune was over, Flanigan brought the familiar melody back in via a tasty bass solo, followed by Derrick, and then by Lappin, along with the orchestra for one more enjoyable time around.
The second half was presented in a format that was unusual for the Pops setting, but refreshing. The Webber medley was delivered in one long piece — without interruption like in a classical work — with the singers remaining on stage together, seated, taking turns at the microphone. This continuous flow from one section to the next, almost like a musical review, worked very well and allowed the focus to remain on the music.
Hayden soared on Don't Cry for Me Argentina from Evita, and Burnham knocked Memories, the immortal ballad from Cats, completely out of the park, following with an even better take on Music of the Night, from Phantom. The familiar Phantom theme was done as an instrumental, with a blast from the trombone section, and the couple's romantic duet on All I Ask of You literally brought the crowd to its feet — and not just to get an early jump on the valet.
But what could have been a perfect Broadway/Hollywood ending was unfortunately undermined by a redundant and seemingly awkward reprise of that last song, though no one present seemed to mind the extra helping of a very good thing.
Overall, the combination of solid musicianship, polished performers and first-class arrangements of legendary material presented in this program proved the Palm Beach Pops to be yet another step closer to the top of their game.