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There is nothing more incredible – or ironic – than 85 plus voices singing about "one singular sensation" along with a full symphony orchestra. Yet that is precisely how the Winston-Salem Symphony opened the "Broadway Tonight" concert, kick starting the season's Pop Series.
The Symphony, led by conductor and Music Director Robert Moody, along with the Symphony Chorale and guest artists Mike Eldred and Lauren Kennedy, saluted an assortment of pieces from contemporary Broadway from the 1970s onward. The roughly 17 musical selections were compiled from productions such as A Chorus Line, Children of Eden, Les Misérables, and Wicked.
There are a few selections from musical theatre's canon that are so iconic and instantly recognizable that they need no introduction at all, as conductor Moody appropriately remarked to the audience before beginning. Then suddenly – at the stroke of his baton – the ominously suspenseful minor chords of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera commenced in bold fortissimo. Phantom's orchestrations are so eerie and complex, with alternating chord progressions from minor to major only to resolve again to minor, that the medley's composed theatricality was as thrilling as any production of the musical, even without staging and voices.
The symphony also shone with its medley of Claude-Michel Schönberg's Miss Saigon. As the musical-theatre adaptation of Puccini's Madama Butterfly, the music of Miss Saigon reflects the dueling atmosphere of traditional Asian culture with that of jazz-pop inspired American influences.
Just as in the concert's rich opening number, the chorale led the vocals on a number of selections throughout. Particularly exciting was the performance of "You Can't Stop the Beat' from Marc Shaiman's 2002 musical Hairspray. It was a joy to experience the '60s rock-soul styled score performed by so many sweeping voices along with the full symphony orchestra. Yet the most moving union of the chorale and orchestra was the rendition of A Little Night's Music's "Send in the Clowns." The song – largely considered Sondheim's most popular – filled the concert hall as the musicians emphasized the beauty of the melody and phrasings.
Guest artist Lauren Kennedy, a staple of the Broadway stage, provided a beautiful yet inconsistent vocal performance. The current Artistic Director of Raleigh's Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy Theatre (a.k.a. Theatre Raleigh) has a resume that includes Broadway productions such as Sunset Boulevard, Spamalot, and Les Misérables. The strength of her soaring soprano was heard in the emotional number "I dreamed a dream" as she played the character Fantine. She also delivered a charming rendition of "Summer in Ohio" from Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years. It is surely worth mentioning that the role of Cathy in this musical was originally written for Kennedy, and she gave the first Chicago performances of the role, before the New York City production.
However, there were moments when Kennedy's performance was a bit lackluster. During the selection "Defying Gravity," from the musical Wicked – a song that is innately cumbersome to perform out of context – Kennedy struggled with the vocal demands of the song and was quite uneven during the climatic bridge.
In comparison, fellow guest artist Mike Eldred delivered a vocally flawless performance. His powerful tenor voice was deeply moving during "Sarah," a selection from the musical The Civil War. Another powerful highlight was "Being Alive," from Sondheim's musical Company. The song requires substantial care with balancing the complex lyrical content while propelling the intensely modulating music, and Eldred did it with finesse.
The audience enjoyed a surprising treat as Eldred was joined in a duet by conductor Robert Moody. As Moody explained, the two have known each other since their teenage years, competing in music competitions. After a humorous exchange regarding which singer is superior, the old friends performed the rousingly confrontational "Nothing without Me" from City of Angels.
The closing number brought together both guest vocalists, the chorale, and of course the majestic sound of the symphony orchestra in a stirring performance of "Do You Hear The People Sing" from Les Miz. The combination of all of the musical elements at the finale left the audience exhilarated from such a dynamic evening of Broadway's musical gems.