The State Theatre in New Brunswick rang with song and laughter on May 31 when the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO), under the baton of renowned guest conductor Todd Ellison, wowed the crowd of Broadway lovers of all ages with a feast of musical numbers. Rather than relegating to as a pit orchestra, however, Ellison featured our NJSO as a soloist, treating us to such plum overtures as the opener from “Gypsy” and, later, “Phantom of the Opera” and “Chicago” as well. Ellison has a gift for making the right combinations of soloists and music and his friends of long standing and a new protégé made for a scintillating afternoon.
Beth Leavel, Tony Award-winning vocalist (“Drowsy Chaperone”) started us off with “Riding High,” truly a highlight and first out of the gate and we were off for an adventure!
Ellison’s guests beside Leavel, who’s a Bergen County girl, included Christopher Sieber who’s also a New Jersey resident, and Kathryn Guthrie, who’s making the crossover from Rufus Wainwright’s opera “Prima Donna” to Broadway. The combination of these three and their talents was intoxicating.
Leavel, at one point, talked about how she connects a song to something in her own life, when Ellison asked her how she keeps a song fresh and present over a show with a long run. When she sang “I Only Have Eyes for You,” from “42nd Street,” to her youngest son in the balcony, many of us were brushing away the stray tear.
Sieber regaled us with stories of his own, including how he came to be in the revival of the “La Cage Aux Folles,” as well as in the touring company, playing essentially opposite himself–Georges on Broadway (to Harvey Fierstein’s Albin) and Albin on the national tour (to George Hamilton’s Georges). The consummate performer, Sieber stirred my blood with his rendition of “I Am What I Am,” coming so close to the advent of Pride Month.
The highest point of the first act for me was Ellison’s tribute to his mentor, Marvin Hamlisch. There was a medley from “A Chorus Line,” a paean to performers everywhere, especially the dance gypsies, and when the final notes of “What I Did for Love” were played, Ellison played our heartstrings as well.
Leavel, Sieber and Guthrie performed an arrangement of Andrew Lloyd Webber music, including “Love Changes Everything” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” interspersed with “An Unexpected Song” and more. It was not a trio in the sense of Mozart, but rather a clever mélange that gave us many flavors from many places.
The second act had some delicious contrasts like Guthrie’s “Till There Was You,” from “Music Man,” about the first stirrings of love to Leavel’s “Where Has My Hubby Gone Blues,” featuring a pair of handsome chanteurs Michael Lowey and Gadon Lodge, who presumably would let her hubby know that he had to man up.
Leavel’s “As We Stumble On,” from “Drowsy Chaperone,” was pure delight and Leavel and Sieber’s “Easy Street” was goofy good fun. How to end such a peripatetic tour of the Great White Way? Why “Bright Side of Life” from “Spamalot” so we could all participate!
These are only the highlights of a delightful afternoon. The NJSO Pops performances are the way we set the hook to introduce friends to the joys of orchestral music and after all, the thrill of listening to an overture played by expert musicians who bring mad skills and scintillating humor to their work is without parallel. Introduce friends to NJSO and you’re giving a gift that’s non-fattening and a lifetime of enjoyment.
Get your tickets now at www.njsymphony.org