OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Midtown Men shine with Pasadena Pops at Los Angeles County Arboretum

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

The Midtown Men, who performed more than 1,000 times in the original Broadway run of “Jersey Boys,” appeared with the Pasadena Pops at the Los Angeles County Arboretum last night.

Since Michael Feinstein took over as Principal Conductor of the Pasadena Pops five years ago, the pattern for the summer schedule has settled into a familiar — and comfortable — pattern. Feinstein conducts three of the shows and appears as singer in the fourth.

Then there is the fifth show, which usually falls in the No. 2 slot on the schedule. This year Pops management found a great “outlier” when it imported The Midtown Men — four members of the original Broadway cast of the long-running the hit Jersey Boys — to the Los Angeles County Arboretum Saturday night. In addition to a highly pleasing performance, the Midtown Men raised an intriguing question, as well.

It undoubtedly helped the quartet, and certainly helped the large audience, that Pops Resident Conductor Larry Blank and the orchestra provided backup. Blank, who has undoubtedly conducted thousands of a widely varied number of concerts, allowed the orchestra to open by playing a lengthy medley of songs from Grease, which they did superbly. He also provided a steady, sure hand throughout the balance of the evening and the orchestra played with solid assurance.

That brought on The Midtown Men — Christian Hoff, Michael Longoria, Daniel Reichard and J. Robert Spencer — who look a bit like the Rat Pack and delivered a high-energy performance that belied the fact that they have performed this show in more than 700 venues across the U.S. and around the world.

During first-half introductions, the audience learned how each member got into the original Broadway run of Jersey Boys, where they played more than 1,000 performances before creating their own show and heading out on the road.

The intros assumed that the audience had either seen the original Broadway show, which has spawned several nationwide tours and a long-running Las Vegas version, or at least knew the story: the formation, success and eventual break-up of the 1960s rock ‘n roll group The Four Seasons.

In addition to a couple of songs from Jersey Boys, Saturday night’s first-half performance featured music by The Beatles and other rock groups from the 1960s (illness sent me home at intermission, which included a larger Jersey Boys set).

Honed by years on the road, the program was polished and certainly played to the Baby Boomers in the audience who grew up on this music during their teens. Moreover, the group’s diction was unusually precise.

However, early in the program one of the “Men” opined that the 1960s was history’s greatest era for rock and roll. My wife and I discussed this on the ride home and both of us (who predate the Baby Boomer era by a couple of years) felt that the 1950s were better than its succeeding decade, at least in part because the 1950s saw the rise of Elvis Presley.

On the other hand, as Michael Feinstein said about Broadway’s “Golden Age” during the Pops season’s opening concert in June, what you think about Broadway and rock and roll “golden” era depends on the age of the person giving the opinion. Whatever the answer, Saturday proved to be a satisfying argument for the 1960s era of that iconic music.

• Feinstein returns to the Arboretum stage on July 29 as he sings music from the Swing era(s): Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and others. Blank will be on hand again to lead the orchestra. INFO
• Feinstein will appear next Sunday at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center playing the piano, telling stories and singing songs from “The Great American Songbook,” the collection of music that he has continued to espouse with almost religious fervor. INFO

(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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REVIEW: Feinstein, Pasadena Pops open summer season at the Aboretum

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Michael Feinstein and the Pasadena Pops opened their 2017 summer season at the Los Angeles County Arboretum Saturday night with one of those programs that has become “traditional” for Feinstein since he became the Pops’ Principal Conductor in 2012 and conducted his first concert a year later.

A large, nearly sellout audience — which included the usual contingent of joyous peacocks — saw Feinstein as conductor, pianist, soloist, duet singer, interviewer and, of course, raconteur. He does most of these things in many concerts, just not all of them at one time, usually. No circus bandleader could have handled the myriad duties with the aplomb of the irrepressible Feinstein.

He got assistance from four soloists (one of whom was a surprise), the Pops’ Resident Conductor Larry Blank (who also arranged three of the evening’s numbers), eight of the Donald Brinegar Singers, and several orchestra members who excelled in their solo turns.

The concert was entitled “Broadway: The Golden Age,” although Feinstein noted in his opening remarks that what constitutes the “Golden Age” differs in large part based on the listener’s age (for some people, Phantom of the Opera equates to ancient history). Nevertheless, the evening featured music covering four decades and, as is often the case, Feinstein unearthed a work that hasn’t been performed in public: Herbert Spencer’s arrangement of The Sound of Music.

From a performance point of view (aside from Feinstein), the evening’s highlight was vocalist Storm Large, who delivered passionate, sultry performances of As Long as He Needs Me and Maybe This time, joined with Feinstein for Come Rain or Come Shine, and did a hilarious send up of Hopelessly Devoted to You.

Feinstein introduced a young singer, Alex Getlin, who he discovered during parties at Judge Judy’s house when she was age 8. Now age 23 and a recent grad from Northwestern University, Getlin sang I’m the Greatest Star from Funny Girl with polished gusto.

After intermission, Joel Grey showed that even at age 85 he can still create magic in a medley from the musical Cabaret, for which he won an Academy Award and Tony Award in his role as the show’s Master of Ceremonies.

The evening’s surprise was the appearance of Liza Minnelli, who had been listed in the preconcert publicity as the evening’s honoree. After a video montage of some of her greatest musical moments, Minnelli came onstage and it appeared as if she would, indeed, simply be interviewed by Feinstein about her legendary career. Instead, she joined Feinstein for a couple of songs, including a performance of Irving Berlin’s I Love a Piano, in which she flashed glimpses of her magnetic stage personality.

• The Pops is co-sponsoring a performance by country-music star LeAnn Rimes on July 8 at The Arboretum. Tickets start at $10 and can be purchased through the Pops’ Web site HERE.
• The next concert in the Pops’ season is July 15 when four of the original cast members of the Broadway’s Jersey Boys, who call themselves The Midtown Men, will present songs from that show along with music by the Beach Boys, Beatles and others. Resident Conductor Larry Blank will lead the orchestra. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Michael Feinstein reprises “Sinatra Project” at L.A. Arboretum

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

FesinsteinMichael Feinstein performing the music of Frank Sinatra would seem to be a perfect fit. After all, Feinstein has made a career of curating, promoting and performing “The Great American Songbook” and no one belongs in that genre more than “Ol’ Blue Eyes.”

For the second consecutive year it was a perfect fit as Feinstein and the Pasadena Pops, led by its resident conductor, Larry Blank, presented “The Sinatra Project, Vol. 2” last night at the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

For the second consecutive year it also was boffo box office as a sold-out audience packed the tables and sprawled on the The Giant Lawn of the Arcadia facility.

As usual, Feinstein, the orchestra’s Principal Pops Conductor, mixed Sinatra favorites with pieces that had been unperformed for decades — or at all. Feinstein provided his typically erudite commentary, which was compact enough that the entire program clocked in at slightly more than just two hours, even allowing for CEO Laura Unger’s gushing thanks to the evening’s sponsors and a lugubrious rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, led by Concertmaster Aimee Kreston.

One thread to the evening was Feinstein’s use of arrangers indelibly linked to Sinatra, including Nelson Riddle and Ruby Bloom. Blank also offered a couple of his arrangements and led the Pops as it played well both as an orchestra and a ’30s-style jazz band.

As is typical of Feinstein programs, he offered a couple of “discoveries”: Blank’s arrangement of Orange, and a complete performance of Three Coins in the Fountain (Sinatra recorded the title song for the 1954 movie but what was used wasn’t the complete version that Sammy Cahn and Julie Styne created).

Throughout the evening Feinstein played every role but conductor: singing some of the songs (such as Something’s to Give) accompanied by the orchestra, some (e.g., I’ve Got a Crush on You) from the piano, and Birth of the Blues, where Feinstein offered a spiffy piano solo.

Perhaps the most poignant piece was If I Loved You, from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s movie Carousel. Feinstein preceded this by noting the familiar story about why Sinatra elected not to appear as Billy Bigelow in the movie — he didn’t want to have to record each scene twice, once in standard format and the other in widescreen, which was necessary in those days.

However, Feinstein offered a different version, courtesy of Shirley Jones (the female star), who said Sinatra was afraid that his wife, Ava Gardner, would have an affair with Humphrey Bogart while they were overseas making a movie, so Sinatra withdrew to join her. It was a typical Feinstein historical note.

The evening concluded with a medley of Sinatra songs, a reprise from the conclusion of last year’s Sinatra Project. If there is to be a Volume 3 it won’t be next year. Instead, Feinstein is slated to sing an evening of Swing Music on July 29 as the third concert in the 2017 summer season.

This year’s season continues on August 20 with Feinstein conducting the Pops in music by Cole Porter (INFO) and concludes on September 10 with an evening of music from Warner Bros (INFO).

For next season, the pattern from Feinstein’s first seasons seems to be well entrenched. 2017 will open with Feinstein conducting the Pops in Broadway: the Golden Age on June 17 and continues with music from Jersey Boys and Beyond on July 15, with Blank leading the Pops and four members of the Broadway musical. After Feinstein Sings Swing on July 29 will come Gershwin and Friends on August 19 and Universal Studios Favorites on September 9, both with Feinstein conducting.

(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Cal Phil, Pasadena Pops perform Saturday in Arcadia

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
This column was published today in the above papers.

Summertime … and the classical music season warms up along with the temperatures. Arcadia is the place to be on Saturday as the California Philharmonic begins its 2014 summer season at Santa Anita Racetrack, while a few hundred yards away at the Los Angeles County Arboretum the Pasadena Pops continues its summer schedule.

• Music by John Williams headlines the Cal Phil’s opening concert, as Victor Vener leads his ensemble in the first of five concerts at the performing space in the infield of the famed racetrack. Among the selections will be a violin/cello arrangement of the theme from Schindler’s List, with father and son duo Dennis Karmazyn on cello and Max Karmazyn on violin as soloists. The program will also include Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Orff’s Carmina Burana, with the Cal Phil Chorale assisting in the latter.

Other 2014 concerts are:
July 12 — “Copland and Cowboys”
July 26 — “Music, Fantasy and Adventure”
Aug. 9 — “Movie Masterpieces
Aug. 23 — “Broadway and Bolero”
As usual, each outdoor program is repeated the following afternoon in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Information: www.calphil.com

• Broadway is on the Pasadena Pops agenda Saturday night, as resident conductor Larry Blank leads the orchestra in a potpourri of selections from famous Broadway shows. Soloists include vocalists Susan Egan, Valerie Perri, Christina Saffran, Lisa Vroman, and David Burnham. Among the shows featured will be Cabaret, Evita, Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, A Chorus Line, The Music Man, Wicked and West Side Story.

This is the only concert of the five-event Pops season that will go head-to-head with the Cal Phil, but as is usual when that happens, traffic issues can arise. This is also the only Pops concert of the season where Principal Conductor Michael Feinstein will not appear. Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

Got a bunch of money? If you hurry you can still find an orchestra that will put your name on its music director position. The Chicago Symphony was the latest to join the naming craze when a gift of $17 million from the Zell Family Foundation bought perpetual naming rights to the orchestra’s music director position, currently held by Riccardo Muti.

If the name “Zell” sounds familiar, it’s because Sam Zell bought The Tribune Co. (including the Los Angeles Times) in April 2007 and then took it into Chapter 11 bankruptcy 20 months later.

The CSO joins the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where Gustavo Dudamel holds the title of “Music Director, Walt and Lily Disney Chair” (which is amusing since Dudamel only sits on a chair during rehearsal), and Los Angeles Opera, where James Conlon is the “Richard Seaver Music Director.” Upon checking their Web sites, it appears that both the Pasadena Symphony and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra are still open.

(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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