Review: ‘I Am What I Am: The Music of Jerry Herman’ by The American Pops Orchestra

The American Pops Orchestra’s presentation of I Am What I Am: The Music of Jerry Herman was nothing short of spectacular. Maestro Luke Frazier created an uplifting and thrilling show, with a fresh arrangement of songs from “Hello Dolly!,” “La Cage aux Folles,” “Mame,” and more to inspire resilience. Fresh orchestrations from the 20-member Pops accompanied six magnificent vocalists.

Kathy Najimy in ‘I Am What I Am: The Music of Jerry Herman.’ Photography by Glorianna Picini.

The Pops opened the night with a moving adaptation of “Before the Parade Passes By,” which began like a gentle wave kissing the sand. Maestro Frazier began dolce on the piano, lulling the audience with his dulcet tones. Then, the whole orchestra crescendoed like a tidal wave. In between the ebbs and flows, the violins (Chaerim Smith, Janet Bailey, Soojin Chang, Kahyee Lee, Lara Frazelle, and Marissa Murphy) employed quick bursts on the strings, like tiny crabs dancing in and out of the water. As the maestro left the piano to conduct, he was replaced by not one, but four pianists (Alex Tang, Chris Urquiaga, Karen Walwyn, and Scott Beard), an amazing feat that guided the crescendo to its frothy peak.

Actress Kathy Najimy, of “Sister Act” and “Hocus Pocus” fame, wowed the audience with the opening lyrical number. Her version of “Hello Dolly,” was titillating with lyrics like “Hello DC” instead of “Hello Dolly” and commentary particular to the Nation’s capital. She ended the inspiring opening number with the reminder that if we “channel goodness and light…humanity will triumph.” TV reality host Paige Davis (TLC’s “Trading Spaces”) sang an energetic version of “That’s How Young I Feel” despite just coming off knee surgery.

Alexis Michelle, who starred in “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” dazzled the audience, not only with her gorgeous wigs and a Cinderella pantsuit, but with “A Little More Mascara” and “I Am What I Am.” Her poignant and authentic delivery of the songs truly captured the feeling of the evening, that despite facing uncertainty and obstacles, there is always a way to overcome.

DC-based vocalists thrilled and moved the audiences with their theatrical and vocal range: Tracy Lynn Olivera’s “And I Was Beautiful” was sultry and touching, Mauricio Martinez’ “I Won’t Send Roses” was bitter-sweet and heart-rending, and Paul Roeckell’s “It Takes a Woman,” was playful and satiric. It was especially delightful when Olivera came on stage near the end of Roeckell’s number and dragged him from the stage by his ear.

Rounding out the musical ensemble were the Congressional Chorus and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC. The finale was stunning with the entire cast singing “The Best of Times is Now” from the stairwells as well as the stage. The mellifluous sound filled the hall with rousing, lilting sounds of instrument and voice. It was hard not to feel the rhythm and meaning vibrating and humming in the heart and soul. “And live and love / As hard as you know how / And make this moment last / Because the best of times is now.”

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

I Am What I Am: The Music of Jerry Herman played one-night-only on May 18, 2019, at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. For information on future American Pops Orchestra events, go online.