By Erin Fleming
Light Opera Works fall concert, Hollywood’s Greatest Song Hits, celebrates the variety of music from the silver screen, from the Thirties’ gems that set Fred and Ginger dancing, to the classic theme songs of the Fifties and Sixties, to the recent era of memorable power ballads, all sung by a cast of Light Opera Works favorites.
The Great American Songbook is full of iconic music from the movies, contributed by songwriting greats like Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin and the brothers Gershwin. All of these and more are included in the program, which squeezes seven decades worth of hit songs from into a tight two hours, performed by an all-female quartet of performers with very different styles.
Alicia Berneche‘s crystal clear soprano has been heard on opera stages around the globe including Chicago’s Lyric Opera. Mary Robin Roth is a bold and brassy belter at home in roles like Dolly, Mame, Gypsy’s Rose or Annie’s Miss Hannigan. Amanda Horvath, a musical theatre veteran who also travels with the Chicago-based tribute band “ABBA Salute,” shows a real affinity for pop and contemporary music. The quartet is rounded off by Sarah Larson, whose sweet and strong voice will be heard on the Light Opera stage later this season as Adelaide in Guys and Dolls.
Somehow all those distinctive personalities blend together on beautifully harmonized group numbers like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Born Free,” and are even more impressive on the acca-awesome acapella versions of “Moon River” and “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.” According to Berneche, the four soloists were challenged but excited for the chance to craft a group sound. “It’s out of my comfort zone,” she explains, “but it feeds me in a way I don’t get fed when I do my solo work, so it’s so gratifying when we get that sound that is OUR group sound, and it blends so beautifully; it’s thrilling.”
Act 1 covers the 1930s through the 1950s, and is divided into three sections featuring “Art Deco” Hollywood classics such as “Putting on the Ritz” and “Lullaby of Broadway.” It continues through the Film Noir era with “Blues in the Night” and “Stormy Weather,” and then into favorites from the forties and fifties: “Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” “Get Happy,” and of course, “The Trolley Song.” It is wonderful to listen to these old standards and to be reminded why so many have chosen to cover them over the years.
Act 2 features recent songwriting giants such as Burt Bacharch, Marvin Hamlisch, Carole Bayer Sager, Dolly Parton, Paul Williams and the Bergmans. The orchestra swaps out the standup base for an electric base guitar to accompany the quartet through the “Swinging Sixites” (“The Look of Love, ” “Charade,” and “Alfie) to the power ballads of the seventies, eighties and nineties (“The Way We Were,” “Nobody Does It Better.”) The ladies end the evening by jumping back to possibly the most beloved movie song of all time, “Over the Rainbow.”
It’s an ambitious feat, assembling such a diverse catalog into a cohesive whole, and Director Rudy Hogenmiller and Music Director Linda Madonia take some interesting risks, some of which pay off, some of which…not so much. In an evening of mostly hits, there are a few misses. The numbers that work the best are when the right song is matched with the right soloist. Some of the best pairings of songstress to style include Berneche’s technically impressive and truly moving renderings of “I Will Wait for You” from the Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Titanic’s “My Heart Will Go On.” Berneche authentically communicates the emotions of the lyrics of her pieces in a way that reminds patrons of what they felt the first time they watched those films. It’s also fun to see such a classically trained artist cut up and be silly.
But the true star of the night is Roth, bringing some soul, some attitude and some genuine gravitas to all of her selections, most notably “Unchained Melody,” “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “The Rose.” It’s almost a shame, and one of the downsides of organizing the program chronologically, that Roth’s show-stopping version of the quintessential torch song “The Man That Got Away” comes so early in Act 1. It should probably end the night. Nothing that followed topped it.
There’s no doubt that the ladies are having fun with each other, bringing wit and humor to performances such as “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” and “Goldfinger.” When they hand off solos to each other during their Dirty Dancing encore, they clearly really are having “the time of their life.” There’s an effervescent energy and lightness there that is absolutely communicated to the audience.
This show is a great choice for those who love movie music—many of these songs are seldom performed live since they aren’t part from a stage musical—and appropriate for all ages.
Light Opera Works presents “Hollywood’s Greatest Hits” through October 11 at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue, Evanston. Tickets start at $34 and are available online here.