Kenneth Raskin, Assistant Conductor of the North Carolina Symphony since fall 2003, made his debut in the pops genre with a series of three concerts entitled “From Broadway with Love.” On the afternoon of January 18, in Meymandi Concert Hall, the orchestra was brilliant under his baton, but the effect during most of the program was not so much emulation of the standard Boston Pops style as the late Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd. The orchestra sounded much more like a dance band than a pops orchestra, and the brasses were unflinchingly prominent. At one time the piano, high at the rear of the stage, was spotlighted as the principal vocal accompaniment and played beautifully, making a spectacular contrast to the general timbre of the “band.” The keyboardist, not listed in the program, was invited to take a well-deserved bow. There were several other times when less than the full orchestra was used to accompany performances by vocalists Lisa Vroman and Stephen Bogardus, and less was always more.

After intermission, Vroman appeared on stage in a solo performance of “Think of Me,” from Phantom of the Opera, that stole the show and was the absolute highlight. With this, she was reprising a number from a highlight in her career in San Francisco and New York, and her voice soared above the NCS and into the hearts of the audience. She had endeared herself to every bargain shopper in the audience by sharing her little “secret” that the gown in which she appeared for the conclusion of the performance was purchased during her Raleigh sojourn from Lord and Taylor at Crabtree Valley Mall for “Forty-seven dollars and sixty-three cents! The navy blue spaghetti-strap gown was a knockout, and so was the song, using her impressive classically trained lyric soprano quality.

Bogardus, who sang the leading man roles and his own solo after intermission, excelled as an actor, and you could tell you were watching Broadway-caliber work, although his voice took a long time to warm up. It finally came into its own with “Love changes everything,” which featured a long, loud conclusion. Meanwhile, he played the role of a stunning Frank Sinatra but with gravel voice. It is a fine pops voice but was never a match for Vroman’s vocal gifts. Wondering who wrote the repartee and created the clever choreography for the duo, I put the two names in a Search engine on the Internet to see if they were touring together or to determine whether they had been selected separately by the conductor. The only reference I could find that included both of the names among several others was “late news from the cabaret world… show directed by Steven Rader.” It is a mystery if Rader should be credited for the Raleigh show.

From time to time, gold hearts and other appropriate forms were projected on the wall above the orchestra. Lighting technicians had set the initial mood for “From Broadway with Love” with a projection of a superior sketch of Broadway marquees on the otherwise blank space high above the stage.

After intermission, the “band” got off to a blaring start with the Overture to Funny Girl. As they blasted “People Who Need People,” there was a glaring void on stage during which the music cried out for a lively jitterbug by the principals. Alas, that was not in their job description.

The conductor then introduced his friend, Lisa Vroman, when she returned to the stage alone. She sang “I’ve Got Rhythm,” and her belt voice was good, too! When it was Bogardus’ turn to solo, he was a smash hit with “All That Jazz,” out Sinatra-ing his look-alike. The duo continued singing with the energy of the professional pace set in the first half of the program, dashing from opposite sides of the stage, crossing and taking new places, sometimes meeting center stage to embrace as appropriate to the music. It was a delightful afternoon for anyone not working as a critic! The entertainment value of “From Broadway with Love,” on a scale of one to ten, was a ten, and Raskin scored a direct hit with the audience in programming his pops debu t.

*Edited 1/23/04.