Once a humble, holiday-time advertising slogan, "The Gift of Music" is now the title of a new Julie Andrews show testing its artistic and commercial viability - not to mention its star's injured but recovering vocal cords - at a handful of summer-concert venues. Thursday night it was at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts.
Anything involving a group as large as the augmented Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, an often-active video element, and a six-member cast is going to have technical uncertainties: When singing "Edelweiss" in the show's grand finale, the cast turned to the video screen expecting to face a photo of the song's authors, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, only to see a generic computer-screen file index. Oh well.
In other respects, Andrews surrounded herself with first-class talent in a program the first half of which comprised music by Rodgers, and the second a newly made one-act musical parable called
. Even so, "The Gift of Music" is a fair distance from being all that it can be. But whether or not it continues in future seasons, Thursday's audience at least had a substantial encounter with Andrews.
At age 72, she remains handsome, charismatic, and the picture of poised warmth. Though much of her singing was incidental - starting "Do I Hear a Waltz?" for example, then letting the cast take over - she reminded you why divas often deliver their best work when approaching their twilight years. Diminished vocal resources bring artistic intentions into sharper focus. And though Andrews retains perhaps 20 percent of what was once a multi-octave voice, that's still more than what any number of cabaret singers get away with.
Often, her voice ascended promisingly, only to drop into a safer lower range, sometimes exploring the song's chord voicings as a jazz stylist might. My aural instincts tell me she has rather more notes than she thinks (or maybe that's the masterful illusion she creates), but sustaining them to her own satisfaction seems part of the problem. But did anybody love her for her high notes? Not me.
Near the end of the first half, she ventured "My Funny Valentine" alone, start to finish. Her vocal navigation was credible - but more important, each phrase reading was so rich in emotional wisdom and musical understanding that the song was easily the highlight of the program.
Andrews apologized afterward, saying music director Ian Fraser made her do it (but adding that he only had to ask once). If apologies were warranted, it was only for the fact that she didn't sing more.
Elsewhere in the first half, the show traded heavily on
The Sound of Music
with video clips of famous bits. From there, the program went into lesser-known repertoire, such as Anne Runolfsson's marvelous "Nobody Told Me" from
and Andrews assuming the fairy godmother role to Christiane Noll's Cinderella in "Impossible."
Those were excellent, but much of the rest felt hastily assembled - the giveaway being that singers used their bag of performing tricks (especially Jubilant Sykes, whose bag is extensive) more than musical insights. Also, you'd never guess the show was directed by the formidable Graciela Daniele were she not listed in the program.
, based on the children's book Andrews authored with her daughter, Emma, held the stage well enough, though the story's simplicity (a medieval lutenist finds his creative voice thanks to friendly birds and fish) would be best told in an animated feature. Though the songs have sharp lyrics by John Bucchino, the gentle music by Fraser (also the show's music director) never commanded the foreground.
What did command attention were the book's illustrations by Gennady Spirin seen on video screen, resembling medieval tapestries with the colors of stained-glass windows. You wanted them to come off the screen and sing. Maybe, some day, they will.