“Wicked” witches great entertainment at MSO’s Pops

By - May 28th, 2011 03:12 pm
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The final Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s Pops Series of the season drew a large, satisfied crowd the evening of Friday, May 26.

To my ears, a pops concert is often just that – pleasant music, brightly orchestrated, but loaded with extraneous sounds, especially percussive. The contrast of the light orchestration of songs from Gypsy to the full orchestral color offered by Bizet’s more classical treatment of Carmen made that point. Others will like the Milwaukee Orchestra playing Conga (basically a concerto for drum set and orchestra) or an arrangement of Diana Ross songs to a disco beat. The orchestra played well and guest conductor Steven Reineke was entertaining to watch. Tall and lanky, he danced through Gypsy and Conga waving his arms dramatically to cue the players.

Jennifer Laura Thompson, who played Glinda on Broadway in Wicked

Jennifer Laura Thompson, who played Glinda on Broadway in Wicked. Photo courtesy MSO and the artist.

But add a good singer – a diva – to the mix and my perspective changes. This weekend, the Milwaukee Symphony features two of them: Julia Murney and Jennifer Laura Thompson (although they did not appear together). Each has played a leading role in the long running Broadway hit Wicked, playing respectively a “wicked” witch and a “good” witch.

(One concert diva was not a singer. Concertmaster Frank Almond’s Lipinski Stradivarius was featured “singing” “Over the Rainbow.” The violin’s voice, well above the human range, brought great tenderness and drama to the song.)

Murney and Thompson parodied and sang the role of diva through a selection of great Broadway hits, with beautiful and dramatic selections which allowed each diva to showcase her talents with full-voiced sustained emotion. Both divas were up to the task, although their talents were different. They complemented each other well.

Jennifer Laura Thompson hit all the high notes with renditions of “I Could Have Danced All Night” (My Fair Lady), “Think of Me” (Phantom of the Opera) and “My Heart Will Go On” (Hollywood’s Titantic). It did not help, however, for her to remind us that Julie Andrews, Sarah Brightman and Celine Dion had made these songs famous. Thompson’s voice is good, but does not have the depth of Andrews, the coloratura of Brightman, nor the ease of Dion on the stratospheric notes.

Julia Murney, who played Elphaba on Broadway in Wicked. Photo courtesy MSO and the artist.

Julie Murney’s smokey, sultry voice is strongest at a lower register. She belted “Back to Before” (Ragtime) and offered great vocal “cadenza” in a comic “Diva’s Lament” (Spamalot). For Liza Minelli’s hit “Ring Them Bells,” Murney acted and sang better than Liza, drawing the loudest cheers of the evening. Murney is very effective as a comic actress. (A montage on her web site reveals her as a good dramatic actress as well. She has appeared in many films and TV series.)

The pair were at their best in a song set from Wicked. In this turn on the Wizard of Oz, Elphaba (to become the wicked witch of the West) and Glinda (the future good witch of the North) meet as college roommates – before Dorothy comes crashing in. Thompson’s comic skills were showcased in “Popular” as a young stuck up “good” witch offering to help her roommate. Murney’s dramatic skills nearly overcame a loud orchestra in the central song, “Defying Gravity.”

The two collaborated on the penultimate song, “For Good.” With a subdued orchestration, the tender moments were carried by both singers and were an appropriate close to an entertaining evening.

Wicked Divas will be repeated Saturday evening at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m., May 28-29 at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. Tickets are $23-$93 at the MSO website or ticket line, 414 291-7605, and at the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.

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