Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II pioneered a flair that was all their own in the golden age of musical theater. From 1940 to Hammerstein’s death in 1960, this musical duo dominated the musical stage and big screen with hits such as South Pacific and Cinderella, and their mastery of creating stories through music that lived beyond the page or even the performance is much of what keeps their work alive and well today.
And is it alive and well. Along with The Choral Arts Society of Washington (Choral Arts), world renowned soprano, Renée Fleming and Broadway baritone juggernaut, Norm Lewis, brought the Concert Hall of The Kennedy Center to life in a way that was nothing short of electric. This is what live concerts, for all of their ad-libbing and occasional mix-ups, are all about. And this is what makes them so special. For one night only, we relived the magic of what it must have been like to hear the songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein for the first time.
Starting with the Sound of Music—the last musical Rodgers and Hammerstein worked on together—the women of the Choral Arts conjured chills in their performance of “Preludium,” and perfectly set the stage for the night’s leading lady to arrive. In a version all her own, Fleming’s “The Sound of Music” carried us to that high Austrian hill and dared us to sing along.
In was in the program’s transition to The King and I, my personal favorite of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, that Lewis took the stage and brought a mature tenderness to “I Have Dreamed” that I‘ve rarely witnessed in live performances. The sincerity with which he sings is truly remarkable. Where he was a lover in “I Have Dreamed,” he was an old friend in “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” from Oklahoma. The Concert Hall rang with his clean, clear tenor just as a bird would on that bright and beautiful morning. You can’t help but admire the deftness with which he jumps from mood to mood between songs; practically shining with excitement in “It’s a Grand Night for Singing” from State Fair, while in the next he (and the audience along with him) are close to tears at his rendition of “Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat.
Songs such as “Getting to Know You” from The King and I and “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, however, broke through the serious moments with fun. For these playful numbers Fleming was joined on stage by the Choral Arts Youth Choir, and while several looked to be on the cusp of adulthood themselves (wonderfully adding to the comedy of the songs), the youthful energy and committed focus they possessed was inspiring to see.
But for me, the moments that stole the show came in the second half of the program when Renée just got to be Renée (in truly stunning blush sequined gown, might I add). Her variations on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “If I Loved You” (from Carousel) can’t be overstated, and maintained a perpetual flutter in my chest as my heart just danced. The effortless way she floats to her notes and her ability to delicately sustain any note seemingly forever had me in awe. Here is a woman who has practically owned every stage she has set foot on and to see her so moved, so present in the music was something I will not soon forget.
Not to be outshone though, the musicians of the Choral Arts, led by Artistic Director Scott Tucker, were magnificent constants throughout. Not unlike a chord wall of sound and enthusiasm, the choir delivered a show-stopper in its Medley from Guys and Dolls, music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. (A quick shout-out to Katie Capanna for her characterization of Miss Adelaide during “Adelaide’s Lament.” It was the perfect balance of nightclub nasal and some serious belting pipes, well done!) Equally as impressive was the range, both playful and serious, of the Choral Arts Orchestra in ushering in the last musical of the evening with “The Carousel Waltz” from Carousel.
But in saving the best for last, it was Fleming and the Choral Arts musicians performing a truly empowering version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” that was the highlight of the night. You couldn’t help but smile by the final chord, chest swelling with emotion, and, looking around at my fellow audience members, few were not outright beaming.
Akin to musical candy for the ears, last night’s concert celebrated classics from the American songbook in ways even I could have hardly expected and I know just about every word of the Rodgers and Hammerstein collective works.
Congratulations to the Choral Arts Society on another spectacular concert, and thank you seems hardly enough for the musical brilliance of Renée Fleming and Norm Lewis, but thank you. One encore was hardly enough to get you the applause you all deserved.
Running Time: Two hours, with a 20-minute intermission.
Some Enchanted Evening: The Music of Rodgers and Hammerstein and the American Songbook with Renée Fleming and Norm Lewis played for one night only on May 15, 2016 at Choral Arts Society of Washington performing at The Kennedy Center – 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. For future Choral Arts Society of Washington events, see their calendar of events. For future performances and information at The Kennedy Center: call (202) 467-4600 / (800) 444-1324, or check the Kennedy Center’s calendar of events.