The Grant Park Music Festival‘s annual revue of Broadway show tunes is always a crowd pleaser. But this year’s version, titled Lights on Broadway on Friday and Saturday, was a cut above.
Rather than a lineup of lead vocalists, the producers focused mostly on two superb performers with serious musical theater chops: Capathia Jenkins, fresh off her Chicago star turn in the Chicago Philharmonic’s Aretha Franklin tribute concert and Sam Simahk, who, over the past decade, has made a career performing in legacy revivals such as My Fair Lady, The King and I, Oklahoma, and Carousel.
In addition to Jenkins’ and Simahk’s numbers were a pair of show-stopping cameos, with Jonathan Groff nearly stealing the night reprising his role as King George III in the original Broadway cast of Hamilton, and Michael R. Jackson singing the title song of A Strange Loop, the award-winning show he wrote from his own challenging experiences as a Black, gay artist.
All but one of the 11 featured musicals won Pulitzer Prizes; the only exception was Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change, though Kushner did win a Pulitzer for his Angels in America. The musicals spanned almost a century, from Of Thee I Sing, the political satire by George Gershwin first staged in 1931, to A Strange Loop, which along with its Pulitzer won the 2022 Tony Award for best musical.
Most of the songs appealed to my fellow baby boomers, who appeared to make up most of the audience, with South Pacific, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, A Chorus Line, Sunday in the Park with George, and Rent.
There was also a looser theme of love, said guest conductor Kimberly Grigsby, who has spent most of her career in musical theater orchestra pits. That theme was very broadly interpreted, though.
It included the very romantic “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific, “I’ll Cover You” from Rent, and “What I Did for Love” from A Chorus Line.
But it also included “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” the breakup song from South Pacific; “I Believe in You,” the song that the protagonist in How to Succeed sings to himself in the mirror; South Pacific‘s “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” a song protesting racial prejudice that was ahead of its time in 1949; and “You’ll Be Back,” Hamilton‘s darkly comic take on King George (played with fierce hilarity by Groff) in which he mocked and threatened the rebellious American colonists (“‘Cause when push come to shove, I will kill your friends and family, to remind you of my love”).
The lead performers held the audience throughout. Jenkins is a charismatic performer with great range, from delicate introspection … to gospel … to soul … to Broadway belter; one hopes that, after virtually back-to-back turns in the Chicago spotlight, she will not be a stranger on our stages. Simahk is a young musical pro and his tenor rose above the orchestra’s accompaniment.
If there was a hiccup, it was on “Some Enchanted Evening.” The issue was not Simahk’s performance, as he sung the song well, but rather a perception of what the song is supposed to sound like. The role of Emile de Becque, South Pacific‘s lead male character, was first performed by Ezio Pinza, an opera star with a bass voice. Rosanno Brazzi played the role in the 1958 film version but the voice of Giorgio Tozzi, another operatic bass, was dubbed in. Those deeply resonant voices gave the song a power that a tenor voice just could not match.
Simahk did totally capture the youthful energy of J. Pierrepont Finch, the bundle of cheerfully unbridled ambition at the center of How to Succeed. It would have been kind, though, if there had been some acknowledgment of how Finch was the signature role for Robert Morse, who died in April just short of his 91st birthday.
All in all, a cheerful and entertaining evening. And Groff can come back and do that King George thing any time.
The Grant Park Music Festival steers back to classical mode on Wednesday, July 13. The featured piece is Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 103, also known as the Drumroll Symphony, preceded by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade and Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto. All tickets in the front sections of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion are $26 and can be purchased by clicking here; admission to seats in the rear and on the Great Lawn are free.
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