All through Friday's concert at Kleinhans Music Hall, I kept staring at guest conductor Marvin Hamlisch, thinking: This man composed "A Chorus Line." I just couldn't believe it.
Because this guy is a riot.
We have a live one in Hamlisch, who's in town this weekend to lead the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in a glitzy show called "Broadway Hits." (The concert repeats tonight at 8.) Hamlisch doesn't look like the kind of person who writes hit Broadway shows. He's much more like the madcap uncle who entertains the family at Thanksgiving. Deadpan and relentless, he kept the jokes coming as fast as the tunes. About every 10 minutes, he brought the house down.
He works a crowd well. He singled out a couple in the fourth row and made them move to the first, where there were a few empty seats. When people straggled in late, he called attention to them. "You didn't miss much," he said. Then he called into the wings: "Thank you again, Celine Dion!"
And that was just the beginning.
The music was fun, too, ranging from "Show Boat" to "The Phantom of the Opera."
A Richard Rodgers medley began with "Bali Hai" and sashayed on through "With a Song in My Heart," "The Lady Is a Tramp" and an "Oklahoma" full of bells and whistles. A Jerome Kern set was even better. Standards like "The Song Is You" and "All the Things You Are" gave way to "Show Boat," and wound up with an "Old Man River" that was so wide, deep and stately that you could just see the big paddle wheel.
Hamlisch has a robust, no-nonsense way of conducting that helps him get away with playing these songs from corny old musicals.
He also plays a mean cocktail piano. A solo piano set of songs he said he wished he'd written comprised a lush "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Somewhere" and "Send in the Clowns."
We were joined from time to time by Stephen Lehew, a Broadway belter if ever there was one. Lehew's powerful voice, trembling with emotion, can bring to mind operettas by Victor Herbert. He crooned "It Might as Well Be Spring" and "Hello, Young Lovers" and then threw himself full force into "Some Enchanted Evening."
A highlight came when we arrived at "A Chorus Line." Hamlisch played us the overture, which wound up being cut from the show. "Here's the overture from 'A Chorus Line,' had there been one, which there wasn't," he said.
What a kick it all was. How great it is that Hamlisch will be back not only tonight but in December to conduct the famous BPO holiday pops show -- and next spring too, for a show called "Star Search." We're going to have fun with him.
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra pops concert, with guest conductor Marvin Hamlisch.
Friday and 8 o'clock tonight in Kleinhans Music Hall.