My wife and I have purchased season tickets in the past to the NAC Pops series, and it can get a tad expensive once you add in 6 shows, babysitter, sometimes dinner, sometimes parking, etc. Plus, honestly, it’s a heavy commitment at times. You don’t “pop” out for quick listen, it’s a full evening, requires planning etc. Fun, but not like going to a movie on the spur of the moment.
This year we opted for a smaller subscription, just four shows, and we aren’t in the same seats for every show. Which may turn out to be fun since we’ll get to try all different kinds of seating across the newly renovated NAC.
Saturday night was our first outing, and it was an 80s night. Basically the orchestra plus two singers working their way through the hits. It sometimes seems odd, since if you love the orchestra, you miss out on some of the performance because the singers are over-riding it. To compensate, the orchestra does some of the numbers as pure instrumental.
The two singers this time were Nicole Parker (MadTV) and Aaron Finley (Broadway, including Kinky Boots). I didn’t know either one before the show, but I know Finley’s “type”. Many of these shows pluck a singer from a series of Broadway shows, hire them for the run, and they sing the various songs. They mix and match men and women, throw them together, great, there’s a show. But unlike a Broadway show where the singer gets to “live the part” and therefore “inhabit” or “own” the song, many of the songs come across as high-end karaoke…they can sing, but they are not great at embodying the lyrics. Add in that they are all Broadway-trained for that earnest, belt it out to the back of the theatre, projection voice rather than say a band singer who often relies on the speaker system to do that. It is good, don’t get me wrong, but often seems like they are just “missing” the song, not quite nailing it.
Aaron’s opening number was Bryan Adams’ Summer of 69. If you know the song, you know that Adams infused it with a bit of edge. Not hard-core, but a bit of regret, a bit of blue-collar rock, some grit. Finlay sang it like it was glee club day and shucks he was just happy to sing. I’m exaggerating slightly, but it wasn’t awesome. Perhaps because I like the original.
However, when Nicole Parker started singing Elton John songs, it was world-class. She was flat out awesome. The two of them worked their way through Sad Songs, I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues, and I’m Still Standing, and the benefit of having professional singers in an NAC-level performance hall becomes literally crystal clear…every word is totally understandable. I swear they would have a chance at making Wooly Bully understandable.
Take Boys of Summer. It’s a decent song by Henley, easy to get lost in. Finlay made every word, every lyric crystal clear. It was like hearing the words for the first time. Parker did the same for Lauper’s True Colors, introduced with obligatory reference to being American and having to deal with Trump. Parker is also a comedienne (hence the MadTV experience) and she kept a lot of the light entertainment going during the night.
The orchestra’s three big pieces were a medley of movie soundtracks in the first half, kicked off the second half with David Foster’s Winter Games, and followed it up later with E.T.’s Adventures on Earth. While the last was clearly a John Williams score, it really didn’t fit with the rest of the evening.
I felt like filing an official protest when I saw there would be a double offering of Toto — Rosanna and Africa, but I have to admit it is the first time in years that I didn’t want to go running the other way. An opening part of Rosanna with the violins made it almost sound like the violins were saying the word “Rosanna” in the chorus. Michael Jackson’s Human Nature was also decent, but not overly well-received (many were talking quietly during the performance)…perhaps reflecting that it is one of the few songs on the Thriller album that didn’t chart well. Sting’s Every Breath You Take was decently performed, but as Finlay noted at the start, there is a creep factor to it too which always leaps out at me.
I was really looking forward to the last piece, as it was three from Lionel Richie…You Are (zzzz), Stuck on You (zzzz), and All Night Long. I thought ANL would be AWESOME. It is one of my favorite songs of the early 80s, and along with a couple of others in that era, it always puts me in a good mood and I love the rhythm and backbeat. It’s just infectious. Plus there’s a couple of horn sections that are really strong transitions. I’m no musician, clearly, but I like the song. I was really looking forward to the orchestra blasting it out, with the singers along for the ride. Particularly as I said, there are a couple of horn sections, plus some slightly more muted but still recognizable string sections.
It was good, it wasn’t great. I don’t know if the conductor was going for his own interpretation, but a couple of the transitions which should have given free rein to the trumpets came out almost muted in comparison. Singing was good, but I got the feeling I was watching two hosts of a low-rated NYE special trying to get the crowd going to ring in a soggy new year.
The encore was a question mark…I wondered if maybe Queen, lots of bands to choose from. Andrea noted that none of the artists were people who had died in the last year, so no tributes going on. Turned out it would be Prince — 1999.
Unlike All Night Long, the orchestra finally got to let loose a bit. A really good encore, but again, the hosts were doing their best to act like they were rocking out with an Ottawa crowd who are mostly sitting and likely to remain sitting no matter what they do. Not everyone, but it makes some of the festivals who complain about everyone sitting in their lawn chairs look downright peppy.
Overall a good night, and Nicole Parker was awesome. There were some good songs, but not as good overall as some of the shows we’ve seen.
We’ll see how the next show goes — Casablanca (the orchestra plays the music along to the movie). While the movie is undoubtedly a classic, there are some sections of it that were in dire need of an editor, and the middle act has some reaalllly slooowwww parts. Still, it will be nice to hear the live orchestra doing the accompaniment.