Music topics don’t get much better than this, folks. New Jersey Symphony Orchestra joined Megan Hilty—or vice versa—in an exciting program that paid tribute to Hollywood and Broadway musical hits, old and new, at an inexplicably undersold Pops concert Saturday evening, Feb. 13, at Prudential Hall, the crown of Newark’s NJPAC. Conductor Todd Ellison, currently of Broadway’s “An American in Paris” fame, presiding from the podium, drew elegance and finesse from the Orchestra’s 80-some musicians who lovingly supported its featured artist.
After an opening orchestral medley that gave a nod both to Broadway and to Hollywood, conductor Todd Ellison spoke to the audience, which he does most amiably and intelligently. He introduced the next selection, Henry Mancini’s mellow “Moon River” from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which seemed like such an odd, low-energy choice for a show-stopping diva to start a show with. But no, not yet. The orchestra’s rich textures were the only voice heard in a lush scoring of this song, performed the only way it should ever be heard: unapologetically gorgeous and without those incomprehensible lyrics.
When Megan Hilty finally appeared, she shimmied onstage in a strapless silhouette gown of golden gossamer by Alyce, of Paris, blatantly bespangled and all aglitter with elongated swirling gilt flourishes, sweetheart neckline and a trumpet skirt flaring from the knees downward to a delicate sweeping train. She delivered a passionate “Come Rain or Come Shine” that showed off her admirable legato (smooth, flowing sound production without breaks between notes) and innate rhythmic sense. But she was just warming up.
With fluency broken only occasionally by charming self-doubting ums and ers and uhs, Megan Hilty spoke rapturously about husband Brian Gallagher, New York City-based singer/song-writer/guitar player/actor, who she met at a bar, “because we’re classy,” and whom she suddenly wed in Las Vegas, “at a ceremony that wasn’t as cheesy as we wanted.” She dedicated “It’s Almost Like Being in Love” to him. Either she really likes him, or she’s a convincing actress—and the word on the street is that she is both very good at acting and quite smitten with her husband.
The concert’s first half ended in a blaze with “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” with no fewer than three finales. Both false finales easily fooled the audience, which each time broke into raucous applause. The star milked her public for all its gullibility, and they were only too glad to be duped twice. She and Todd Ellison scored a hit with this number a few years ago when they collaborated at City Center Theater’s semi-staged production of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” in its prestigious “Encore!” Series.
After intermission, two Broadway musical medleys kicked off the program’s second half, namely, principle numbers from “My Fair Lady” and “Wicked,” the latter a tribute to Megan Hilty’s Broadway debut as Glinda. The former, as Todd Ellison proposed, would be a fabulous vehicle for the singer’s next stage success. Yet that wonderful plum is such an underwhelming showpiece for this sophisticated crooner who can also blast like the best of ’em. To tap her full potential, something higher octane would be more suitable. Let’s see. “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” maybe? Hm, it’s already in her repertoire.
Again wearing a form-fitting, strapless gown—this one scarlet, by Mac Duggal—boasting a taffeta tiered skirt of flowing ruffles and discreetly flecked with subtle sequins, Megan Hilty retook the stage and performed “April in Paris,” basically the only out-there number of the concert’s second half. Nearly all the rest were introspective numbers, which perfectly suit her voice, her stage command and the courage she displays, remaining motionless, drawing the audience toward her.
George Gershwin’s immortal “Someone to Watch Over Me” was the first of four numbers that gave Megan Hilty the chance to show off her greatest talent: how to control the overwhelming potential of her powerful voice and sing elegantly, softly. Fortunately, she doesn’t have a traditional “Broadway voice,” with either an annoying pinched, nasal override or a jarring, high-decibel, hardness and intensity à la Ethel Merman—or worse, both. Hers is warm, broad, open, in short, exquisite, a voice with full potential to belt, but that, happily for us, doesn’t.
The star next honored Rosemary Clooney and her 1952 hit, “Tenderly,” which is exactly how Megan Hilty intoned it. When she spun the words “The evening breeze / Caress the trees—tenderly,” the delicious dip to the depths of her plummy lower range and the thread of golden voice subtly, sensitively caressed the ears of all in attendance, who hung on every word. “Then you and I / Came wandering by / And lost in a sigh—were we” she virtually sighed.
What is it that’s so alluring about those who rein in their impressive vocal power for the equivalent of a little melodious whispering? Singing pianissimo (very quietly) creates an intriguing hush, as if the performer has a secret to tell, and the audience strains to listen closely, they themselves completely still, almost holding their breath, because they definitely want in on the secret.
Composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist and director Scott Wittman composed “They Just Keep Moving the Line” and “Second-Hand White Baby Grand” for Megan Hilty’s turn as Marilyn Monroe’s alter ego, Ivy Lynn, in the 2012 NBC TV American drama series “Smash.” In the style of an authentic Vaudeville anthem—a flashy period, big-band sound, blaring trumpets to boot—the orchestra provided a sultry, pulsating canvas on which the chanteuse splashed the sonic equivalent of boldest, vivid Technicolor.
The singer told the poignant backstory of the battered, out-of-tune piano Marilyn (Norma Jean)’s mother bought her during her childhood. She had to part with it when they moved, but when she started making money, she hunted for it and bought it back from its new owners. Utterly touching. The exact opposite of the previous Vaudeville anthem, this subdued gem glints and sparkles when Megan Hilty’s lovely, pure tone tenderly scales the heights in quietness, lingering quaveringly at the top on a sustained note. The singer makes it sound easy to spin gossamer.
Totally non-diva, Megan Hilty isn’t above stooping to silliness, as when plugging her latest CD: “It’s on sale now in the lobby, so just go on out there and buy it, to help me pay for my daughter’s education.” Then, under her breath: “Yeah, I live in New York City, where everything’s so expensive.”
Or: “My, how time flies! It’s hard to believe it’s already time to pretend to sing the last song before I go offstage and come back on and sing the for-real last song, as if we were all totally unprepared for such a thing.” An apt introduction to Glinda’s moving good-bye duet with Elphaba, “[I Have Been Changed] For Good.”
After which, she indeed girlishly feigned waving good-bye to the audience as she marched off giggling: “Good night, everybody. Thanks so much for coming.” Then, reappearing immediately from the wings, she gushed: “Oh, goodness gracious! You’re still here? Well, I guess I’ll just have to sing you this one for-real last song.”
Though the term “flamboyant” aptly describes the closing of the concert’s first half, which came off with quite a bang, the second half concluded in quiet contemplation—wistfully, meltingly and achingly beautiful. Another Rosemary Clooney signature song, “Count Your Blessings,” in all its gentle sincerity, stirred hearts even more than all that previous blazing exuberance. This time what wowed wasn’t anything over the top, but simple understatement, somehow accentuated by self-restraint rather than by letting loose.
Megan Hilty deploys an impeccable vocal technique without sounding like a self-conscious technician. Instead, she does so artistically, allowing the audience to luxuriate in her gorgeous tones and moans, without even unconsciously wondering just how, precisely, she does that. Handed down from Barbra Streisand herself, the queen of humming, Megan Hilty can resonate the really tough terminal consonants—the ems, the ens and the -ngs—casting them to the far reaches of the auditorium just as audibly as any of the easy-to-project open vowels. “Blessings, “line,” “lamb” … they graciously linger, thanks to her estimable ability.
Like true stars, the orchestra refrained from upstaging the featured artist, gladly taking the backseat, but never becoming mere background. They radiantly shone in the strictly instrumental portions of the program, during which Principal Violinist Eric Wyrick played graceful solos. In orchestral interludes of her songs, Megan Hilty always turned her back on the audience to fully face the orchestra, dreamily swaying and displaying obvious pleasure with their stylish musicality. Todd Ellison deftly led, seeming to let everything take place spontaneously, organically, which must be terribly difficult to pull off—you know, controlling without being controlling.
The NJSO Pops series continues April 15-17 when Cheyenne Jackson performs “Music of the ‘Mad Men’ Era” with Thomas Wilkins conducting, in Red Bank, Newark and New Brunswick.
Meanwhile, in Englewood and Newark, regular NJSO programming resumes Feb. 25-28 when Peruvian maestro Miguel Harth-Bedoya leads the ensemble and guest cellist Stephen Fang in symphonic works by Aaron Copland and Antonín Dvořák that form the cornerstone of orchestral repertoire and Czech composer David Popper’s “Hungarian Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra,” Op.6.
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra
Resident orchestra of New Jersey Performing Arts Center
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Newark NJ 07102
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