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The Broadway talent of vocalists Katie Rose Clarke and Nicole Parker, who both were part of the Broadway production of Wicked, came alive in Raleigh with the help of conductor William Henry Curry and the North Carolina Symphony. Clarke and Parker sang with all the glitz and glamor of Broadway divas, from Barbara Streisand to Donna Summer to Galinda and Elphaba from their starring roles, and the Symphony played in a variety of exciting styles, capturing the entire development of musical drama, from Carmen to Titanic. Although Clarke and Parker claim not to be "the bad kind" of divas, they certainly gave performances worthy of true leading ladies.
The orchestra opened with instrumental pieces, first the overture to Gypsy by Jule Styne and then selections from Georges Bizet's opera Carmen, including favorites "Habanera" and "Les Toreadors," which had the style and flourish to begin an impressive concert. Then the vocalists strutted onstage, showing their enthusiasm and glowing personalities. They began with a high-energy duet of "All That Jazz" from Chicago, by John Kander.
Clarke launched into a sweet interpretation of Lerner & Lowe's hit "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady, followed by Parker's rendition of "Don't Rain on My Parade" from Jule Styne's Funny Girl. Her performance was particularly sassy, since, as she explained, "this Presbyterian girl" had to let her "inner Jewish comedian" Barbra Streisand out.
The orchestra performed a short interlude, "Ragtime," the title song of Stephen Flaherty's bluesy classic. The tune was laden with delightful solos, especially in a particularly jazzy trumpet part, and had audience members tapping their feet, their fingers, bobbing their heads. The excitement did not stop when Clarke performed next, "Think of Me," from Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. She was able to briefly set aside her musical theater belting to give a nod to "opera: music theater style." Parker then took the stage for a lively performance of "Ring Them Bells" by Kander & Ebb, in which she gave each character a convincing accent and personality.
Closing the first half of the concert was Enrique Garcia's "Conga," made famous by Gloria Estefan. This arrangement featured an improvisational percussion section full of exciting parts. The orchestra was a little sluggish, which may have resulted from over-amplification of the full personnel on stage. The strings seemed to fall quite behind, as this style is not typically in their repertoire. The amplification problem seemed to get worse throughout the second half of the concert; the vocalists both had strong belting voices and I would have loved to hear what this concert sounded like without microphones, because it seemed that the sound could easily fill up the hall without them.
Renewing its strength, the orchestra opened the second half with Steven Reinecke's arrangement of classic Diana Ross songs in "I Hear A Symphony: Symphonic Sounds of Diana Ross." This delightful arrangement for the full orchestra included "Stop in the Name of Love," "Touch Me in the Morning," and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." Following in the same vein, the vocalists came back onstage proclaiming their undying love for conductor William Henry Curry and how they were fighting about it, "and we want to sing about it!" exclaimed the self-proclaimed Nicole "Beyoncé" Parker, who felt left out without three names like Curry and Clarke. They launched into a very fun rendition of "No More Tears (Enough is Enough)," the disco hit made famous by Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand.
Following in the diva style, Clarke sang "My Heart Will Go On," which Celine Dion sang in the movie Titanic. Playing with the full orchestra behind her, the song was highly effective, with several lovely solos from the orchestra. Parker returned next, playing the true diva in Du Pruz and Eric Idle's "Diva's Lament" from Spamalot, which recounts the troubles of a leading lady, like having no songs in the second act of a show. The over-amplification straddled the line between quite loud and dangerously loud while Parker belted magnificent high notes and the orchestra supported her with already full dramatic emphasis.
Introducing the Oz set of the program, the orchestra looked back to the original The Wizard of Oz film with Arlen & Harburg's "Over the Rainbow," featuring a charming solo by concertmaster Dovid Friedlander. It wasn't the typical rehashing of the song; in fact, it had a depth and complexity that even the original didn't seem to have. Friedlander's relaxed tone emulated Judy Garland and conjured up imaginings of yellow brick roads and cities made of emerald.
To close the concert, Clarke and Parker sang some of their favorite songs from Wicked, with music by Stephen Schwartz, in their original roles. Clarke gave a bubbly and clever performance of "Popular," then Parker emerged for "Defying Gravity," the climax of the first act. She regaled the audience with stories from her Broadway experience including what happens when the mechanism that allows her character Elphaba to fly doesn't work. Then she sang, belting with such passion that I caught some members of the audience around me singing along. Even out of context, this song is so powerful and speaks an inspiring message to everyone.
The last duet on the program was "For Good," the last song that these characters in Wicked ever sing together. Clarke began sweetly, singing about how friendship changes people forever, then Parker joined in, and their voices combined gave the simple song such power that the audience was moved to tears. They sang together as if they really loved each other and whether this was truly just acting or not, it was effective. Their encore, a sincere interpretation of "I Will Never Leave You" from Side Show, kept this feeling going and left the audience with warm hearts.
This was one of the most impressive pops concerts by the North Carolina Symphony I have ever attended, and I would call myself quite a regular. The guest vocalists were spirited and charming, as well as high-quality performers, and the Symphony did some wonderful work both in accompanying and performing instrumental works in a variety of engaging styles. This was a concert not to be missed if you enjoy musical theater, film, and a few modern divas! This concert is repeated Saturday night, January 19. See the sidebar for details. Perhaps Symphony personnel could personally monitor the mic settings from the hall and text adjustments to the control room. That would give this already spectacular concert the right adjustment to give the audience an even more enjoyable experience.