Buffalo needed a tribute to Marvin Hamlisch. I think we all miss him.
He became the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal pops conductor at a time when our town was still smarting from the loss of his predecessor, Doc Severinsen. Severinsen had left because of a management dispute, which was a pity – but then along came Hamlisch, picking things up and taking us in new directions. Marvin Hamlisch, who wrote the music for “A Chorus Line!” It was fun just being in the same hall with him.
Now it’s the laughter that we remember, when we remember the way we were.
That was one of the songs in Saturday’s BPO’s “One Singular Sensation: A Tribute to the Music of Marvin Hamlisch.” It was a touching tribute to the maestro we learned to love.
Three singers were on hand. One was Jodi Benson, the voice of Disney’s Little Mermaid, whom Hamlisch brought here on several occasions. Another, to the crowd’s delight, was Donna McKechnie, who created the role of Cassie in “A Chorus Line.” You don’t get bigger in Broadway than that. McKechnie looks lovely and her voice is bright and clear.
The third was the great Doug LaBrecque, who like Benson was a Hamlisch favorite and a regular at Kleinhans Music Hall in the Hamlisch era. LaBrecque is the real deal, a true Broadway pro. Normally he would sing “The Music of the Night” from “The Phantom of the Opera” and, silly as that song is, he could sell it in a way that could make you faint.
Saturday, when he sang Hamlisch’s music, we saw other aspects of his artistry. LaBrecque is more than a great Phantom. He is a terrific song-and-dance man. He can make any song grab you, from “Ordinary Miracles” to a song like “Smile” that is, face it, kind of a dud. “Smile,” from a show that bombed, was presented in a charming setting, with LaBrecque joined by Immaculata Academy’s Vox Caeciliae.
Most of the concert was on the lighter side – an exception was the wistful music to “Sophie’s Choice,” with a solo by Roman Mekinulov, principal cello. But everything took a lot of skill.
The night had an easy, nostalgic pace. Benson and McKechnie told stories. The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, arrayed behind the orchestra, was not overworked. Associate Conductor Matthew Kraemer, on the podium, presided with relaxed humor, even briefly playing the part of Hamlisch in a story McKechnie was telling. Kraemer is going to be leaving next year. I’ll miss his sense of fun.
Susan Schuman, the pianist for the Philharmonic Chorus, found herself thrust into the spotlight, playing the piano at center stage for the whole evening. She was prominently featured in the music from “The Sting,” and all the well-known Hamlisch introductions. God love her, she walked the tightrope, but she seemed scared. Who could blame her?
The singers changed clothes constantly. Each gown Benson wore was more shimmering and beautiful than the last. LaBrecque and Benson joined in a wacky performance of “They’re Playing Our Song,” full of slapstick and comic dancing. McKechnie sang two songs from “A Chorus Line” that she did not sing in the original, “Nothing” and “At the Ballet.” Later she sang “The Music and the Mirror,” which she did sing in the show. She danced, and I think everyone got a little choked up.
As a finale she sang “What I Did For Love.” You could not beat this catharsis. She sang the first verse, then Benson sang a verse, and then LaBrecque’s silken tenor came in with “Gone ... love is never gone. ...”
I had to leave but I hear that the show ended with the glorious “One,” complete with glitter, kicks and top hats.