Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Blockbuster Broadway with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra
Featuring Stephen Schwartz

Orpheum Theatre

Also see Gil's reviews of A Celebration of Harold Pinter and The Emperor's New Clothes

The Phoenix Symphony Orchestra presented yet another excellent concert in their Pops series last week, this one centered on blockbuster Broadway shows. Under the expert guidance of conductor John Clanton, the evening featured five skilled vocalists and a cameo from composer Stephen Schwartz who performed and joined the orchestra in accompanying the vocalists on piano for a trio of songs from his score for Wicked.

Blockbuster Broadway got off to a rousing start with the orchestra playing a spirited version of the overture for Chicago, which segued into "It's Today" from Mame. Kelli Rabke led that number with slightly rewritten lyrics that touched upon specific Broadway long-running shows as well as a few flop shows. Scott Coulter, who served as the host of the evening, delivered a heartfelt "Tomorrow" from Annie as well as an assured take on "Last Night of the World" from Miss Saigon, which he sang with Fay Ann Lee, who appeared in that show on Broadway. Rabke and Jessica Hendy delivered powerful versions of hit Broadway ballads: Rabke sang a potent version of the title song from Cabaret; and Hendy gave a solid and soulful take on two pop songs now both in Broadway shows, "The Winner Takes it All" from Mamma Mia! and "Natural Woman" from Beautiful The Carole King Musical.

Coulter sang another pop hit now heard on Broadway, "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" from Jersey Boys, and, with pianist John Boswell, a sweet and simple duet of "You've Lost that Loving Feeling" from Beautiful. But it was his performance of the title song from The Sound of Music that was the highlight of the evening. A soaring, slow downed version of the song focused on how important music is to any stage performer. Coulter's take on the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic was nothing short of stunning. He provided the arrangement for the song as well as one for a stellar trio rendition of "Being Alive" from Company. Performed as a layered version, with the vocalists singing Sondheim's poignant and powerful lyrics in rounds, it was a deeply emotional performance. Lee delivered an earthy version of "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Misérables and also joined the whole cast for an act one ending medley of songs from Disney shows.

The second act featured a powerful arrangement of The Phantom of the Opera's title song that gave each section of the orchestra a workout. Hearing the famous Andrew Lloyd Webber tune performed by the dynamic and large Phoenix Symphony was extremely stimulating. The entire company sang "Corner of the Sky" from Pippin, and then Coulter introduced Schwartz as the special guest of the evening. While Schwartz only sang one solo song, and he may not have a voice as strong as the other vocalists, it was extremely entertaining. He talked about what goes into writing a score for a musical and how a song will usually go through many variations before it is considered finished. While the program stated he would be singing Wicked's "The Wizard and I," he started out by singing portions of earlier versions for that song when it was originally called "Making Good" to show what he was referring to. He spoke about why the song was changed, what creative decisions went into making the music and lyric changes before singing a driving delivery of the final version of the song. It was a highly educational experience for any fan of Wicked and musical theatre. Three Wicked songs followed, all with Schwartz playing the piano along with excellent orchestral arrangements by Ryan Shirar, who created all of the arrangements for this concert with the exception of the two that Coulter wrote. Rabke sang a superb, comical and zany "Popular," Coulter and Lee performed a rich, personal "For Good" and then Hendy blew the roof off the Orpheum Theatre with her powerhouse version of "Defying Gravity." A medley of songs from Hair ended the evening on a high note.

While the title of the concert might have been a bit misleading, since not every song was from a "blockbuster" Broadway show—Beautiful The Carole King Musical has only been running for a year, and Sondheim's Company, while a critical favorite, hardly has the same profit level as the mega-hits Wicked and Phantom—the selection of material was still quite good. With excellent singers; including Coulter's superb vocals on his numerous songs; the experience of hearing Schwartz talk about the writing process for a famous blockbuster; and impeccable playing by the orchestra, Blockbuster Broadway was another successful concert for the PSO.

Blockbuster Broadway with the Phoenix Symphony played two performances on February 6th and 7th, 2015, at the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix. Information for upcoming performances with the Phoenix Symphony can be found at

--Gil Benbrook

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix