Monday, June 26, 2000

Little earns big laughs

By Nicole Hamilton
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Riverbend was comedy central at the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra concert Saturday night. The event featured the triangle as a solo instrument and an impression of Richard Nixon in braids like Willie Nelson's.

        It was hard to tell who was the featured comedian, Emmy Award-winning impressionist Rich Little or Pops conductor Erich Kunzel.

        Before Mr. Little took the stage, the Pops played a series of what Mr. Kunzel called “fun” pieces that included selections from Jacques Offenbach's ballet Gaite Parisienne, Hayden's Toy Symphony, and two excellent arrangements by Crafton Beck — Randy Newman's “The Time of Your Life” from A Bug's Life and “King Herod's Song” from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar.

        The first few measures of the orchestra's first selection, Franz von Suppe's Overture to The Light Calvary,featured a succinct and robust horn section. Unfortunately, this felt like a teaser, as the horn solos that followed sounded weak, partially a sound system issue, and partially because of poor dynamic balance between the brass section and the powerhouse strings. Offenbach's ballet, Gaite Parisienne,includes the “Can-Can,” and although no dancers appeared on stage, the orchestra's playful and enthusiastic interpretation was a crowd-pleaser all the same.

        Most concerts ride through some turbulence, and Saturday's was Hayden's Toy Symphony that featured a mini-orchestra of six local celebrities, led by associate conductor John Morris Russell.

        Hayden's composition was barely audible over the toys played by news anchors such Channel 9's Randy Little and Channel 12's John Lomax, among a few other media types, who didn't seem to mind making fools of themselves while Hayden rolled over in his grave. But redemption was close behind in Leroy Anderson's work The Typewriter, with Mr. Kunzel playing an old typewriter and interacting with the orchestra while unable to coordinate his part with that of the percussionist (staged, of course). This humor worked.

        According to Rich Little, who's writing a book tentatively titled People I've Known and Been, music is an essential part of a movie.

        A lover of classic films, Mr. Little's first impression was that of William Holden's character from the movie Love is a Many Splendid Thing.

        First doing the impression without music, and then with the assistance of the orchestra, Mr. Little's point was that music takes movies to a higher level. “Music can make a good movie a great movie,” he said.

        Mr. Little then launced into several more interpretations of stars from the silver screen, including Katherine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Cary Grant and George C. Scott.

        Paying as much tribute to the score writers as to the famous actors, Mr. Little's homage was honest and elegant, void of any nightclub glitter.

        The subdued Mr. Little eventually gave way to the variety-act performer most people are more familiar with.

        Laughs came easy and quickly when Mr. Little effortlessly performed a medley of songs by such greats as Nat King Cole, Johnny Cash and Tom Jones.

        His tribute to Frank Sinatra, whom he opened for in the 1970s, included impersonations of Dean Martin, Tony Bennett and Sammy Davis Jr. singing “Chicago.”

        Although it wasn't really Sammy Davis Jr. singing, and the town happens to be Cincinnati not Chicago, the crowd's standing ovation was the real thing.


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