Broadway’s Best — TBSO greatness with songs from the Great White Way

By Kyle Poluyko

This season’s second offering in the TBSO Pops series was truly as it was billed, the “Best of Broadway.” Guest conductor Brian Jackson arranged a rich evening of delightfully ariose and timeless classics from the Great White Way, as well as some smartly chosen selections from more contemporary musical theatre. Jackson is a celebrated conductor and arranger, well known for his innovative pops programming. Furthermore, he is also well-versed in the history of musical theatre over the last century, making him an engaging and charming storyteller.

The Overture from Strauss’ Die Fledermaus (The Bat) served as a fervent and euphonious opening to the evening’s programme, played so lavishly and precisely by the orchestra it prompted Jackson to suggest champagne would have been immediately apropos. With knowledgeable authority, Jackson stated that Die Fledermaus (1874), an operetta, gave origin to the musical genre. Introducing a medley of Jerome Kern’s music composed from Showboat (1927) which Kern wrote with Oscar Hammerstein II, Jackson called the production the first great American musical. Sonorous strains of revered tunes including “Ol Man River,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” and “After the Ball” were lavished upon the audience by the crisp skill of the orchestra.

Ira Gershwin’s Overture from Crazy For You — originally titled Girl Crazy (1930) was a kaleidoscopic melange of tunes such as “I Got Rhythm,” “Embraceable You,” and the haunting “Someone To Watch Over Me.”  Before a symphonic delight of the opulent musical gems from Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jackson introduced a medley from the Tony-award winning Ragtime (1996), which premiered in Toronto before making its Broadway debut. Ragtime’s music — composed by a then relatively unknown Stephen Flaherty — is both exhilarating and engrossing, and was played impeccably by the orchestra. Splendidly striking and passionate, too, was the rhapsodic medley from Leonard Bernstein’s acclaimed West Side Story (1957).

A polished pastiche of “One Singular Sensation” and “What I Did for Love,” the two most recognizable tunes from Marvin Hamlisch’s A Chorus Line, ushered in selections from more recent and widely-popular musicals. Humourously declaring he was “Phantomed out” Jackson led the graceful and precise Orchestra through the most memorable selections by Andrew Lloyd Webber from Jesus Christ Superstar (1971)to Cats (1981). Jackson asserted that Lloyd Webber is responsible for the theatrical genre of the rock opera. The unmistakable, powerful and symphonious sounds of Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked (2003) were thrilling, and the beautifully resonant sound from the orchestra certainly had the potential to defy gravity.

Before the final selection of songs from Les Miserables (1985), performed poignantly and passionately and which he called “the world’s favourite musical,” maestro Jackson affirmed to the audience that it is always a joy for him to return to Thunder Bay to conduct the TBSO, firmly declaring it to be one of the best symphony orchestras in Canada. The final notes of “Do You Hear the People Sing” brought the audience to their feet and then, unexpectedly, Jackson brought song from their voices as he sat down at the grand piano, solo, to play the title song from The Sound of Music (1959).

The richness and true gift of this evening was hearing the standards of Broadway played so opulently by a full 30-piece orchestra. Many of today’s Broadway pit orchestras are less than half that size, with click-tracks or pre-recorded music filling out the sound. The Phantom of the Opera (1986) is the only production on Broadway with a full orchestra, boasting 27 musicians. The TBSO’s “Best of Broadway” was just that; Broadway’s best performed luxuriously by Thunder Bay’s finest.

Best of Broadway, the second offering in the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra’s Pops Series, was performed Saturday, November 28 at the Community Auditorium.