By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The Cincinnati Pops crowd is getting used to being extras in Erich Kunzel's televised spectacles. The audience applauded, waved flags and smiled for the camera like pros. But it took the entire first half of Friday night's show to get the kinks out of what was happening onstage - and behind the cameras - as the Pops taped its seventh TV show for PBS.
Opera star Denyce Graves and vocalists John Schneider and Tom Wopat added star wattage to the patriotic show that Kunzel hopes will be telecast this Memorial Day. There were eight cameras (including two slithering between players), TV lights and enough red-white-and-blue festoons in Music Hall for a political convention.
Graves came out in firecracker red for "Strike Up the Band," and unleashed her spectacularly sultry mezzo voice flanked by members of the May Festival Chorus and 14 United States Herald Trumpeters. Then it was "lights, action - cut." The number was done in three parts, stopping and starting. (Take heart; apparently they'll do the show without stops on Sunday.)
For his theme, Kunzel took patriotic tunes from Broadway shows through the decades. It was great to hear songs like "Of Thee I Sing," "Over There" and "What a Country" - the last a splashy arrangement in the grand old Broadway style. Singers and dancers from the Musical Theatre Department of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music lit up the stage with energized, wonderfully choreographed numbers (by Roger Grodsky and Diane Lala), and the United States Army Chorus (Capt. Jim R. Keene, director) added punch to the music.
Graves looked ravishing in a different gown for each of her numbers. She stood dramatically still for "Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor," projecting an arrestingly rich sound, but her voice showed signs of fatigue in her upper register at times. Bernstein's "Take Care of this House" was deeply felt. She relaxed in "Freedom" from Shenandoah, seated on a haystack, surrounded by children. One of her brightest moments was "Wheels of a Dream" from Ragtime, a broad, sweeping tune, sung with Schneider and Wopat.
Schneider and Wopat (Bo and Luke when they appeared on Dukes of Hazzard) were relaxed and spontaneous, but most of the "trouble" seemed to happen when they were around: Kunzel lost his body mike, Wopat blew his lyrics (twice) and a TV light started buzzing annoyingly. "Momma Look Sharp" from 1776, a sad ballad about a dying soldier (sung by Steven Morgan) was sabotaged by an audio snafu.
But there were good moments, too. Schneider was a charismatic crooner in "Song of Freedom," a big band-style number from Holiday Inn, accompanied by CCM swing dancers. Wopat shone in "This Is A Great Country" from Mr. President, aided by audience flag waving.
Nick Clooney made a cameo appearance as FDR in "Off the Record," a "press conference" from the 1937 Rodgers and Hart show I'd Rather Be Right - performed with great timing and personality. Miss Ohio (CCM student Tiffany Haas) showed her tap dancing talent in "Hallelujah" from Hit the Deck (1927), an extravaganza that brought out the whole cast, with Herald Trumpets in the balcony.
The Pops played with pizzazz in "76 Trombones," the Washington Post March and "America" from West Side Story.
Kunzel's pull-out-the-stops encore was "God Bless America," and in the end, every song took on extra relevance.
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