Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires

Regional Reviews by Zander Opper

The Great American Songbook
Debbie Gravitte and the New Haven Symphony Orchestra

Also see Zander's review of The Most Happy Fella

Debbie Gravitte
On October 19, I had the great pleasure of seeing Broadway star Debbie Gravitte perform The Great American Songbook with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra at Hamden Middle School in Hamden, Connecticut. Under the expert baton of conductor Todd Ellison (currently the musical director of Annie on Broadway), the New Haven Symphony Orchestra performed a wonderful selection of mostly Broadway show tunes, with Debbie Gravitte delivering the scintillating, powerhouse vocals. As she mentioned during the concert, in her highly entertaining patter between songs, Gravitte won a Tony Award in 1989 for the musical Jerome Robbins' Broadway, and what was so remarkable about her performance was that, even 24 years later, she still looks and sounds as great as she did when she first starred in that show. I have long been a fan of Gravitte's singing and personality and she did not disappoint, belting the songs to the rafters and displaying a wonderful, infectious sense of humor. Todd Ellison and the orchestra were just splendid throughout, and, combined with Gravitte's talents, they made The Great American Songbook a simply delightful show.

Leading off with the overture for Gypsy (arguably the greatest overture ever), the excitement in the theater was palpable as the New Haven Symphony Orchestra expertly played Jule Styne's music, which was topped off by Debbie Gravitte's entrance, singing a sinuous "Let Me Entertain You," followed by a thrilling "Don't Rain on My Parade." The tone of the concert was very lighthearted and fun and the show seemed to get even better as it went along. As mentioned, Gravitte was in wonderful voice throughout, performing an ideal selection of songs, many from her solo CD Defying Gravity. Highlights of act one were a dandy "I Got Rhythm" and her remarkable re-creation of the song that won her a Tony Award, "Mr. Monotony." And, while this actress' persona was mostly giddy and fun, she still was able to move me to tears when she spoke about her relationship with the recently deceased Marvin Hamlisch. She talked of how she got her first Broadway job in Hamlisch's musical They're Playing Our Song in 1979, and she went on to sing an emotional "I Still Believe in Love" (lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager) from that show.

If the first half of the concert was a delight, things got even better in act two, as Gravitte became even more vocally confident and the orchestra matched her at every turn. She sizzled with her rendition of "All That Jazz" (which she encouraged the audience to sing along with her) and she gave me goosebumps singing "Maybe This Time." The biggest surprise in the second half was when she revealed that, long before Idina Menzel got a chance to sing it in Wicked, composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz first gave the song "Defying Gravity" to Gravitte to "try out" in her concerts. She then proceeded to sing a powerful rendition of the song, growing in excitement as she built it to an amazing climax. The show culminated with a pair of Andrew Lloyd Webber songs, "Memory" and "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," and Gravitte even had the chance to have some Mamma Mia! fun, with the title song of that show, combined with "Dancing Queen."

In the only non-Broadway music of the concert, conductor Todd Ellison and the New Haven Symphony Orchestra performed a wonderful suite of tunes from the movie The Sting (an Oscar-winning score for Marvin Hamlisch). The orchestra also played exciting selections from Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story, and, continuing with the Marvin Hamlisch tribute, music from Hamlisch's most successful show, A Chorus Line. All in all, between Debbie Gravitte's galvanizing singing and the superlative playing by the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Todd Ellison, The Great American Songbook managed to bring more than a touch of Broadway to Hamden Middle School in Connecticut and sent this audience member out with a big smile on his face.

For more information about Debbie Gravitte, you can visit her website at www.debbiegravitte.com. For more information about the New Haven Symphony Orchestra's upcoming series of concerts, go to www.newhavensymphony.org.

Photo: Kevin Merrill

Also see the current theatre schedule for Connecticut & Beyond

- Zander Opper