Like many people my age, I’ve been a fan of Seth MacFarlane’s work for some time. Creator of hugely successful shows Family Guy and American Dad!, his list of accolades is impressive– and exhaustive! We all know about Ted, the loveably raunchy teddy bear who went on to become the highest grossing original R-rated comedy, but did you know that he also released three successful albums, with his third, No One Ever Tells You, debuting at No. 1 on the iTunes jazz charts last year? I didn’t. This lesser-known side of MacFarlane, who travels the world to sing with renowned orchestras, was on full display with the National Symphony Orchestra at Wolf Trap Saturday night, and the result was an evening full of pleasant surprises.
Throughout the evening, MacFarlane announced selections directly from the stage– there was no song list to refer to, and no way of knowing what to expect. This suited the evening perfectly, as MacFarlane himself is best known for his loose-cannon humor. As he introduced his selections, chosen from the likes of the Gershwin brothers, Irving Berlin, and other distinguished songwriters, he would make a bawdy joke that cracked through the poised atmosphere like a whip. These selections were chosen based on what would best highlight the immense talents of the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the masterful Steven Reinke. It was obvious that MacFarlane had a trained musical ear and immense respect for the orchestra; he knew which instruments would shine best in each song, and made a point to tell the audience which to pay most attention to.
After opening with James F. Hanley’s “Strings of my Heart,” Macfarlane teases that he feels bad for the NSO, who “spent years honing their craft and becoming so distinguished, to be onstage playing with Quagmire.”
Seth sang a wide range of songs, including “The Gypsy” by Robert Farnon, Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal’s “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me,” and the upbeat “Everything is Rosie” from the film adaptation of Bye Bye Birdie (a musical that he likened to “an episode of Glee that makes sense.”) A self-proclaimed super fan of Nelson Riddle, he included a number of his s famous arrangements like ones for “The Moon was Yellow” and the well-known, heartbreaking “Old Man River,” with an arrangement written specifically for Frank Sinatra by Riddle. MacFarlane’s smooth baritone wowed the audience, and combined with the beautiful symphony of the orchestra behind him, lulled the audience into a soothing sense of awe. That is, until MacFarlane announced intermission, and proclaimed, “those of you on dates, feel free to excuse yourself for a second so you can go to your car and fart.”
When one thinks of the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, images of crisp suits and tumblers of whiskey come to mind, held by the steady hand of a smooth crooner–sleek, suave, and sophisticated. MacFarlane was all of these things, right down to the polished jacket, which we took off after exclaiming, “It’s too damn hot for this thing.” His debonair charm came with a hint of the jagged edge we all love him for, and gave the evening a light, playful feel that (let’s face it) isn’t normally associated with orchestrations.
This rubbed off on Reinke as well, who decided to tease Macfarlane by intentionally quickening the tempo and inserting random trumpet blasts during the number “It’s June in January.” As MacFarlane startled and jumped from him seat, Reinke turned to him with a wide, mischievous grin, to which MacFarlane quipped back, “That’s what happens when you play Call of Duty instead of rehearsing.”
MacFarlane ended the evening with Gene Barge, Frank Guida, and Joseph Royster’s classic “It’s a Quarter to Three,” but sang lines of it using voices from his collection of characters. This was truly a rare experience from a rare man. Where else will you hear Peter Griffen croon a song made famous by Sinatra?
MacFarlane pushed the envelope with his humor, mostly by teasing the very artists he admired; for example, before singing a rendition of “Someone to Watch Over Me” by George and Ira Gershwin, he quipped, “Two brothers who wrote love ballads together– nothing weird about that!”He also managed to sneak in jokes about Bill Cosby and King Jong Un. No one was off limits– myself included! As he sat back, tumbler in hand, he said, “I’m told there’s a critic here tonight. Can I say, I don’t understand it when reviews are written for one-time shows. Who else can see this again besides Marty McFly?”
Unfortunately, Seth is right– you can’t see this show again. However, Wolf Trap is a spectacular venue that provides professional entertainment that is always consistent and well-worth the ticket price. It is one of my favorite places to spend an evening, and I highly suggest you check out their upcoming shows!
Seth MacFarlane and The Great American Songbook; NSO was performed on Saturday, August 6th, 2016 at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts – 1635 Trap Road, in Vienna, VA. To see a list of upcoming events at Wolf Trap and to purchase tickets, go to their calendar of events.
Running Time: Two and a half hours, including one 15-minute intermission.