When the reigning Phantom of the Opera and other Broadway stars join the Omaha Symphony for an Irving Berlin tribute, it speaks volumes about the respect the symphony and its leaders command.
The visitors more than lived up to their billing during Saturday night’s first of two performances of “Irving Berlin: From Rags to Ritzes.” Hugh Panaro, Judy McLane and NaTasha Williams, joined by Tony DeSare and Jarrett Johnson, dazzled a near-capacity Holland Performing Arts Center audience with their smooth stage presence and polished vocal power in reviewing Berlin’s epoch-making career.
It’s becoming a delightfully regular occurrence to have top-caliber performers leave New York for a few days to front Omaha’s own orchestra. The symphony also has had significant success drawing Big Apple talent to headline its annual Christmas concerts, in no small degree because Omaha has maintained a strong orchestral ensemble while some other major U.S. cities have not.
Resident conductor Ernest Richardson and the rest of the symphony team may have topped their holiday successes with this weekend’s group of musical guests: Panaro, currently playing the Phantom in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running smash; McLane, an eight-year veteran of Broadway’s “Mamma Mia!” cast; Williams, now appearing in “Porgy and Bess”; crooner-pianist DeSare, former star of the off-Broadway hit “Our Sinatra”; and Grammy-winning singer Johnson.
It’s virtually impossible in a two-hour show to touch on every iconic hit penned by Berlin, who lived to age 101 and wrote some 1,500 songs over 60 years. The program, which will be repeated at 2 p.m. today, focuses on the 35-year span between Berlin’s first popular hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911), and the immortal “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (1946).
Each of the five guests had at least one spotlight song, though McLane had three — a melancholy “What’ll I Do?”, a steamy “Heat Wave” and a poignant “They Say It’s Wonderful.” Panaro’s rendition of “Blue Skies” displayed the alluring vocal qualities that helped him win critical acclaim for his Phantom. Williams, meanwhile, reached deep, husky low notes as well as powerfully high notes in “How Deep Is the Ocean?”
DeSare, who excels both as a vocalist and pianist, turned “I Love a Piano” into a tour de force. Johnson, for his part, brought great dignity to his introduction of the show’s closing patriotic medley, which ended with the audience spontaneously standing for “God Bless America.”
The symphony had only the overture and one other piece to itself, but that piece — “Remember” — showed off the ensemble’s extensive emotional palette. To help the audience’s perception, Richardson read Berlin’s lyrics: “One little kiss, a moment of bliss, then hours of deep regret/One little smile, and after a while, a longing to forget. ... You promised that you’d forget me not/But you forgot/To remember. ...”
At times, the visiting quintet sang too powerfully together to blend well. One might also have wished for a bit more dancing with tunes like “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.” But when Berlin is supplying the music, it’s almost impossible not to have a smash. It’s a shame the symphony’s guests can’t stick around longer.