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Hamlisch is a hit in tribute to Kern

Life upon the wicked stage is no problem for Marvin Hamlisch, who joked and jived his way through another cute pops production Saturday in Kleinhans Music Hall.

The house was packed as Hamlisch paid tribute to Jerome Kern. The concert's first half was an array of Kern numbers, including such hits as "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," "All the Things You Are" and "The Last Time I Saw Paris," which got a charming treatment at the hands of BPO Principal Oboist Pierre Roy.

The second half was a semi-staged, condensed take on "Show Boat." Hamlisch usually arrives with great singers in tow, and he certainly did this time. Gregg Baker brought great pipes to "Old Man River." It was a thrill just the first time he opened his mouth to speak.

The depth of his voice was so shocking, especially in contrast to Magnolia's soprano tones, that you could hear the audience gasp with delight.

Clare Gormley, our Julie, sang a rich "Can't Help Lovin' That Man." Her gentle take on "Bill" was especially disarming. She had wonderful expression and subtly brought out the humor of lines like "and yet to be/upon his knee/so comfy and roomy/feels natural to me." You have to love lines like that.

J. Mark McVey, who played Jean Valjean in "Les Mis" 2,912 times, is a proven hit here, so it's no surprise he was a killer as Gaylord Ravenol. His love duets with Magnolia (Lisa Vroman) struck a fine balance.

They brought great vocal power to "You Are Love," a soaring song in the style of old-fashioned operetta. It's funny, Hamlisch chose in his introductory banter to stress the forward-looking aspects of "Show Boat."

I like its backward-looking aspects, and "You Are Love" brings them out.

Neil Garvey, as Cap'n Andy, overcame initial audio difficulties to become our able narrator. It was a pity, though not his fault, that the condensed format trivialized the tale. This short version wasn't as poignant, or as humorous, as it is when you see the whole thing. Still, an abridged "Show Boat" is far better than no "Show Boat." This one got my vote.

The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, too, added depth and drama. It was amazing what dimension this huge ensemble added to the closing "Old Man River." Their lilting treatment of "Life Upon the Wicked Stage" was cute and effective.

The evening's first half was typical Hamlisch, warm and lazy like a long day on the Mississippi. He led the BPO in such kernels of Kern as the Waltz from "Springtime" and a medley from "Roberta," with Principal Cellist Roman Mekinulov playing a silken solo in "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes."

Hamlisch killed time with a piano set, then a round of jokes. Ponderous in his tails, he picked good-naturedly on kids in the front row, kidding them about their iPods and their pop music. "This is going to be a shock. Luckily, we have child Tylenol ready," he told one 9-year-old. "Tonight, we've got singers, and you're going to be able to understand the lyrics." Ha, ha!

Kern's music never gets old, and neither does this kind of humor. Both were a hit with the all-ages crowd.

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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Buffalo Philharmonic OrchestraSalute to Jerome Kern with conductor Marvin Hamlisch on Saturday night in Kleinhans Music Hall.

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