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Stritch and Co., Flashing Back To the 1940s

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 19, 2005; Page C01

Where to begin an account of Sunday night's Kennedy Center "Salute to the 1940s Broadway Musical" -- with Brian Stokes Mitchell's powerhouse rendition of "Soliloquy" from "Carousel"? With Barbara Cook casting a subtle spell in the Concert Hall for the second time in less than three weeks? With the mischievous Elaine Stritch flashing the black-tie crowd?

Toss in Frederica von Stade breezily swapping boasts with Mitchell in "Anything You Can Do," and you have the high-water marks of the center's 13th annual gala, a respectably glitzy 90-minute concert hosted by Julie Andrews (whose participation, alas, was limited to opening remarks).

The show began with a gimmick. Marvin Hamlisch, principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra Pops (and musical conceiver and director of this program), vigorously tapped the podium with his baton. That turned out to be the cue for a tap routine that eventually included the orchestra's entire string section -- or what had appeared to be the string section, but was in fact nearly three dozen dancers who hoofed and high-kicked to an overture inspired by "Annie Get Your Gun." This cute bit brought the distinguished audience to its feet, which would happen only once more during the evening -- when "God Bless America" was sung at the end.

The artistry that came between those standing ovations was generally of a higher order. With "The Carousel Waltz," Hamlisch and the NSO Pops went straight to the most notable development in 1940s musicals -- dramatic power -- and the playing was exactly what it ought to be: joyful, stately, surging with tension. Rodgers and Hammerstein dominated the program (more than half the selections came from their shows), and it's not surprising that Hamlisch returned to the particularly brawny melodies of "Carousel" to make the evening's largest musical statements.

In fact, Mitchell's performance of "Soliloquy," the nine-minute solo number that catapulted show-composing toward opera's musical and storytelling sweep, was the evening's dazzling centerpiece. Mitchell's voice is a marvel -- a royal baritone produced without apparent effort -- and he managed to be both casual and fierce, placing his jacket on the piano and rolling up his sleeves before riding the song's famous doubts to a thundering climax. It was enough to make you wish for a full-blown "Carousel" right away, with Mitchell's name in lights.

For a quick change of pace, Mitchell took on Irving Berlin's "Anything You Can Do" (from "Annie Get Your Gun") with an ebullient von Stade, who was clearly glad to be slumming with a frothy show tune. (Von Stade would return to bring operatic muscle to the penultimate song of the night, "You'll Never Walk Alone," from, you guessed it, "Carousel.") Mitchell and von Stade made delightful comedy of the number's one-upmanship; it was easily the grin of the night.

Stritch got the laugh, though. Wearing nothing but a sailor's shirt and her signature black tights, she slowly teased out the lines of "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" in her raspy, rascally way, pushing the number deep into burlesque country as she flirted with her six chorus boys. She even elicited a wolf whistle from someone in the crowd as she inched that shirt up her hips before finally flipping it up briefly en route to a big finish, in which she reliably gave her all.

Cook once again made "Wonderful Guy" sound like the easiest song ever written, even though singing that contains sparkle of such a high magnitude is rare. So is the exquisite heartache Cook conveyed with her downbeat, gossamer rendition of "This Nearly Was Mine."

The program included a laid-back "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" sung by Irish tenor John McDermott and a hot jazz approach to "I Could Write a Book" by clarinetist Richard Stoltzman (with Hamlisch at the piano). There was also a post-Whitney, post-Mariah rendition (a tad less rococo, but mannered nonetheless) of "Some Enchanted Evening" by Dana Reeve (the widow of Christopher Reeve), who didn't reach for the high note at the end, plus a gospel version of "God Bless America" that felt like pandering to the Washington insider crowd. A sometimes enchanting evening, in other words, with peaks good enough to make you tremble.

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