MSO Pops takes on ’60s soft rock
The MSO Pops featured Billboard hits from the '60s, but the three guest singers and their arrangements didn't always sync up.
This happened Friday: Three Broadway guys in sharp suits sang “Age of Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In” over swingin’ orchestral arrangements. All I could think of as this went on at the Milwaukee Symphony Pops was this bit of cognitive dissonance on a marquee: Frank, Sammy and Dino starring in Rat-Pack Hair!
The three guest stars — the slick Ron Bohmer, the ingratiating (though sometimes pitch-challenged) Bradley Dean and the soulful Tituss Burgess — poured lots of energy into this survey of 60s tunes, and they all have skill and presence. And the orchestra played well for the effervescent Stuart Chafetz.
But this show frequently just felt a little strained, a little off. For starters, miking big voices is tricky in Uihlein Hall, and in certain ranges at certain volumes the higher overtones lit up and turned grating, notably in a falsetto-heavy doo-wop medley. Second, orchestras fit some songs better than others, and the arrangements, from various sources, were up and down. When the arrangements failed, it was usually because of rhythm parts that were clunky
rather than funky. Third, these singers match up with some styles better than others, but still had to run the gamut of 60s Top-40. Even without British Invasion, Psychedelic, Surf, Folk Rock and Funk — all ignored — this program ranges far and wide. Hair, Louis Armstrong’s “It’s a Wonderful World,” Neil Diamond, doo-wop, Tom Jones and Otis Redding numbers. Tall order for a singer to cover all that.
Sometimes the performers emulated hitmakers from yesteryear. The best of these was Bohmer’s remarkable take on Tom Jones in “It’s Not Unusual.” He nailed that vibrato, low in the chest voice, that made Jones’ sound so distinct, and that made me smile. But he was weirdly mannered on “I Heard It Through the Grape Vine”; I’m not sure whether he was going for Marvin Gaye or Whitney Houston. His creativity played to better effect in the expressive ornaments and sly rhythmic displacements he brought to “Unchained Melody.” Dean channeled his inner Bobby Darin for “Mack the Knife,” but Darin was just a half-step removed from Dean’s Rat Pack wheelhouse in any case. His Neil Diamond — the jumping down into the audience, the contrived flirting with the ladies in the first row — well, clearly some people like that sort of thing.
Burgess came off the best of the three, primarily because he concealed his effort. His partners set out to bowl us over, but Burgess let us come to him, and that was a relief after so much in-your-face. Burgess sang songs that fit his voice and temperament and sang as himself. He did not pretend to be Otis Redding in “Try a Little Tenderness” or Ray Charles in “Hit the Road Jack” or Stevie Wonder in “For Once in My Life.” He just sang, with a very appealing quality of sincerity.
Burgess also had the benefit of three arrangements that begin small and intimate and grow into powerful declarations. Burgess delivered on this implied narrative of moving from private consideration through growing confidence to public pronouncement.
The audience responded positively to the show over all, but especially so to Burgess. Me too.
This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 6-7. For tickets and further information, call the Marcus box office, 414 273-7206, or visit the MSO’s website.
Display picture on A&C page: Dashboard radio in a 1965 Ford Mustang.