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JONES' VOICE, PRESENCE TAKE HOLD OF STAGE AT POPS FINALE

REVIEW
Buffalo Philharmonic Pops.

Shirley Jones, guest artist.

Friday night at Kleinhans Music Hall.

There is no modern musical that panders to sentimental emotions and hackneyed pathos as blatantly as "Cats," and no song as ripe with triteness as "Memories."

But last night, Shirley Jones transformed the song into a lingering dramatic "moment."

Good performers entertain. Talented performers get us to feel. Special performers help us understand great truths. I don't know which category Jones falls into, but last night she filled my mind with a jumble of thoughts.

A dictionary definition of a diva will tell you that it applies to a leading woman singer, usually a grand opera prima donna. Implicit in that definition, however undefined, is the ability of such a woman to command attention and, in theatrical terms, "take the stage."

That is exactly the kind of performer that little Shirley Jones from Smithton, Pa., has become. She may look and act like the girl next door but you should know that, on stage, she has the vocal power and physical presence to put cracks in plaster and audience's hearts.

I might be one of the last people in the world to say her performance was perfect. Perfection should exist only in religion. However, she gave a gift of a show that hinted at the magical qualities that the American stage and film can produce.

She brazenly started her half of the Buffalo Philharmonic's season finale pops concert singing a capella, offstage. Bernstein's "Tonight" from "West Side Story" was like a promise of the performance to come. A perky entrance, deep glorious bow and a shimmering voice suddenly appeared in a vision of blue and sequined trimness. While she and the orchestra got acquainted musically, she segued into "There's a Place for Us," reaffirming the promise of a night to remember.

"If I Loved You" from "Carousel" oozed with the same kind of sweetness that she brought to the film role in 1956 -- a freshness quite different from the recent London revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic that hinted at the darker themes of abuse and violence inherent in Billy Bigelow's character.

Watching the urbane and sophisticated Jones perform, it's hard to believe that at 17 she made her Broadway debut in the chorus of "South Pacific." She's come a long way since that first Broadway audition.

The night's music was divided between Broadway and Hollywood musicals. The theme from the late Howard Ashman and Alan Mencken's "Beauty and the Beast" is a stunning piece of music that penetrates into the strongest childhood memories. Performed with simple piano accompaniment, it demonstrated Jones' ability to capture both the emotional and technical heart of a sang.

It was a skill she also brought to her wistful version of "Memories." Her sensitive handling of the shopworn jewel made one realize that it is a song about new beginnings, not a lost past.

Like the pressed rose whose faint fragrance reminds one of a distant, enchanted memory, Jones' performance will linger in our mind's souvenir book for years to come.

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