Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Music of Billy Joel & More, featuring Michael Cavanaugh and
Kristin Chenoweth in Concert

Phoenix Symphony Orchestra
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Sweeney Todd, When You Wish, Me and My Girl, and Hector Coris and Matt Newhard in Together (For No Good Reason)


Kristin Chenoweth
Photo courtesy of Kristin Chenoweth and the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra
Last weekend the Phoenix Symphony presented back to back concerts fronted by two exceptional performers who just happened to have previously starred in Broadway shows at the same time and both earned Tony nominations for their performances. In 2004, Kristin Chenoweth received accolades and a Tony nomination for Best Actress for her performance in Wicked and the year before Michael Cavanaugh earned a Best Actor nomination for his Broadway debut in Movin' Out. Both are gifted performers and their concerts with the Phoenix Symphony, while very different shows, featured exceptional singing and superb playing by the PSO.

In 2001, Michael Cavanaugh was handpicked by Billy Joel to star in the Broadway musical based on Joel's music, Movin' Out. That performance, in which he sang over twenty classic Joel songs, led Cavanaugh to receive Tony and Grammy nominations and he performed more than 1,200 performances of the show on Broadway. After Movin' Out closed, Cavanaugh took his experience, and his love of classic pop rock, across the country, including performing concerts with numerous symphony orchestras.

His concert here, titled "The Music of Billy Joel & More," featured Cavanaugh's silky, smooth, versatile voice as well as his expert piano skills. His infectious enthusiasm and prior experience working at the New York, New York casino dueling piano bar in Las Vegas served him well in achieving a constant connection with the audience.

There were many highlights in the evening, including a lovely trio of songs from Joel's "Innocent Men" album ("Longest Time," "Keeping the Faith," and "Tell Her About It") and also a stunning version of "Goodnight Saigon." Cavanaugh brought along his own quintet of drummer Johnny Fedevich, guitarist Giovanni Mastro, saxophonist John Scarpulla, bassist Billy V, and Jamie Hosmer on keyboard and guitar. While all played exceptionally well, Joel's songs often feature saxophone solos and Scarpulla's stellar playing was enthusiastically received by the full house at Symphony Hall.

The PSO supplied splendid accompaniment featuring orchestrations that augmented Joel's excellent song structure. These included the stunning wall of sound the strings achieved in "Pressure" and an arrangement of Joel's masterpiece, "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," that gave the entire orchestra many moments to shine. Other hits that Cavanaugh delivered superbly include "New York State of Mind" as well as two Elton John pop tunes, "Crocodile Rock" and "Pinball Wizard." He even delivered his original tune "Give It Time" and played "Great Balls of Fire," the song Joel requested Cavanaugh sing when he first heard him play.

Hearing many of Joel's classic tunes with a full orchestration and the full, impressive sound that the PSO delivered was a treat, though there were several songs where the arrangements only included Cavanaugh and his band. While it made sense for some of those, like the a capella doo-wop, finger snapping "The Longest Time," to not feature the orchestra, there were others that would have been nice to hear with the lush sound the orchestra could have brought.

Fortunately, the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra got two solo spots, presenting classical pieces that Joel wrote in 2001. Under conductor Matthew Kasper's stilled direction, these included, in act one, "Waltz No. 1 (Nunley's Carousel)," a beautiful, mesmerizing waltz with swirling musical motifs reminiscent of a carousel, and in act two, "Air (Dublinesque)."

The Saturday and Sunday after Cavanaugh's concert, Kristin Chenoweth played two shows with the Phoenix Symphony that featured many songs Chenoweth performed on her recent Coming Home recording. Chenoweth has made her mark not only on Broadway, appearing in seven shows and winning a Tony for the revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, but also on TV, where she earned an Emmy for "Pushing Daisies," and two Emmy nominations for guest starring on "Glee." Her concert was a blend of Broadway, country tunes, standards, and gospel songs.

Chenoweth's powerful, clear voice delivered a sound that filled Symphony Hall with a stunning beauty. Her self-deprecating humor and no-nonsense delivery gave her an instant connection with the audience. Under music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell's guidance there wasn't one miss in the eclectic song list, with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra adding stirring accompaniment and achieving an exceptional sound throughout.

Broadway tunes included My Fair Lady's "I Could Have Danced All Night" that ended with Chenoweth delivering a soaring note, and a lush, romantic performance of Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are." Her signature Wicked tune, "Popular," got a timely intro with Kristin stating that presidential candidate Donald Trump had asked for her advice. One of the song's lines, "how to fix that hair," brought down the house simply based on the Trump connection. Kristin's take on "Bring Him Home" from Les Misérables, which she dedicated to everyone serving in the armed forces, was stunning, soaring, and effortless.

Two movie hits, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz and Breakfast at Tiffany's "Moon River," were expertly sung as were two country tunes, Jodi Marr's "Fathers and Daughters," which Chenoweth said wasn't written for her but she feels like it was, and a haunting take on Dolly Parton's "Little Sparrow." With help from students at Arizona State University's School of Music, the gospel anthem "Upon This Rock," by Gloria Gaither and Dony McGuire, gave Chenoweth another chance to show off her vocal dynamics, clear phrasing, and powerful, pure voice.

The Music of Billy Joel & More, featuring Michael Cavanaugh with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra played on May 20th, 2016 at Symphony Hall and Kristin Chenoweth in Concert on May 21st and 22nd. Information for upcoming performances with the Phoenix Symphony can be found at phoenixsymphony.org. Information on Michael Cavanaugh's tour can be found at www.michaelcavanaugh.com and information on Kristin Chenoweth's concerts can be found at www.officialkristinchenoweth.com.


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