A marvelous ‘Broadway in the Park’ brings old and new to Wolf Trap

On a perfect summer evening, Tony winners and local favorites star in Signature Theater and Wolf Trap's second annual concert collaboration.

Classic or contemporary? Tried and true or fresh and new? Broadway lovers often tend to come down on either side of a great divide.

Broadway in the Park from Signature Theatre and Wolf Trap proved that it needn’t be one or the other. It showed in the choice of music, artists, interpretations, and even the audience. And the middle ground was marvelous.

This one-night concert on June 24 marked the second annual collaboration between Signature Theatre, the award-winning regional professional theater in Arlington, Virginia, and Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Fairfax, where the concert took place on a perfect summer evening.

Awa Sal Secka (of Signature Theatre) performing ‘Comet Man’ from ‘Funny Girl’ in ‘Broadway in the Park.’ Photo by Traci Medlock.

The balance of new and old was clear the moment Jon Kalbfleisch, Signature’s longtime music director, entered to conduct the Wolf Trap Orchestra. He was wearing a traditional white dinner jacket and black tie, while the orchestra was dressed in various comfortable black outfits for a warm night of vigorous exercise. The orchestra excelled, even if the large-scale amplification required by the outdoor setting made it difficult to pinpoint the particular instruments. With seven brass and seven strings (plus bass), five woodwinds, percussion, drums, piano, guitar, and harp, the sound was rich and balanced. The horns shone particularly on a couple of bluesy numbers. And the conductor arranged almost every solo number so that the orchestra had an instrumental verse, where the singer turned around and joined the audience to listen in appreciation. One of the advantages of a concert format instead of a fully staged musical production is that the orchestra gets to shine along with the performers, instead of just backing them up.

True to the evening’s trend, the opening number sounded familiar but not obvious: the Overture from Merrily We Roll Along. Kalbfleisch makes a specialty of Sondheim, the composer featured prominently in the evening’s lineup, having conducted every one of Signature’s Stephen Sondheim productions. Appropriately so — for some, Sondheim marks the dividing line between the “Golden Age” of Broadway and the contemporary era. And yet, Sondheim is less a turning point than a link — protegé of Oscar Hammerstein, lyricist of Gypsy, composer of innovative musicals like Company and Assassins, by the end of his life he was the beloved éminence grise of Broadway, mentoring, in his turn, younger writers like Jonathan Larson. He is the throughline between West Side Story and Rent. Still, even now he can surprise. One of the highlights of the evening was Kelli O’Hara’s rendition of “What More Do I Need?” from Sondheim’s little-known first professional work, Saturday Night. The song is one of the lyricist’s many paeans to New York, with lines like, “My window pane has a lovely view — An inch of sky and a fly or two… In winter even the falling snow looks used.” It is indisputably Sondheim, and yet it feels new.

The other numbers showed similar balance. The opening, performed by the whole Signature Company cast, was “Putting It Together” from Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, a group musing about the making of art and the pressure for novelty in the modern age:

Overnight you’re a trend
You’re the right combination
Then the trend’s at an end
You’re suddenly last year’s sensation
…. You’re new or else you’re through

But the finale, by the whole company, was that epitome of traditional Broadway, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. And even with such a well-loved song, these singers made it fresh.

Erin Driscoll (of Signature Theatre) performing “The Most Happy Fella’ by Frank Loesser in ‘Broadway in the Park.’ Photo by Traci Medlock.

Eight of the performers were Signature regulars, and from the applause on their entrances it was clear they had whole phalanxes of fans (one might even say groupies) in the audience.

Awa Sal Secka led with a smoking “Cornet Man” from Funny Girl, a classic Jule Styne musical that has recently been revived on Broadway. She balanced that with her second number, a sweet and heartfelt “On My Own” from Les Miserables, beautifully backed by a haunting harp.

Nova Y. Payton and Bobby Smith followed with a charming medley of Irving Berlin classics, “Let Yourself Go” and “Steppin’ Out With My Baby.” Even in the short number, they managed to create compelling characters to engage the audience. Their later songs displayed the classic/modern distinction; Smith gave a touching rendition of the lost-love song “Time Heals Everything” from Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel, which Payton followed with a roof-raising “Home” from The Wiz. Although both shows opened in 1974, they seem to be from different eras. “Mack and Mabel” is a traditional musical by the composer of Hello, Dolly! about a rocky showbiz romance, while The Wiz is an all-Black version of The Wizard of Oz, in the context of contemporary African American culture and music.

Donna Migliaccio continued the classic and Sondheim trends with a brassy belt of “Some People” from Gypsy that made Rose’s determination hard and clear as diamonds. Erin Driscoll followed this with what might have been the only disappointment of the evening, “Somebody, Somewhere,” from Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella. Driscoll is pretty and has a lovely voice, but her high operatic soprano made the lyrics impossible to distinguish and turned her into, as a friend put it, “just another instrument in the orchestra.” She was the only singer who put no interpretation or characterization into the song. But given that the words (if one looks them up) are all variations on “Somebody, somewhere / Wants me and needs me / And that’s very wonderful to know,” perhaps it was a lost cause.

Headliner Kelli O’Hara in ‘Broadway in the Park.’ Photo by Traci Medlock.

Kevin McAllister followed this with a swoon-worthy rendition of that classic of classics, “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific. His voice is like butter, and he started so quietly that it was almost hard to hear him, despite all the sound design’s whopping power. But this was clearly an artistic choice, because he built the song, layer by lovely layer, up to a meaningful but not overwhelming peak. And this speaks to another joy of this show — none of the performers felt the need to overdo anything, to show off. They are all consummate professionals, well aware that they can hold a stage — even in a venue as huge as the 7000-seat Wolf Trap, with patrons stretching far up onto the lawn — seemingly without effort. They convey emotions by a flick of the hand or a lift of the chin and know perfectly when to use the entire space to strut or dance, and when to stay still. This mastery continued in McAllister’s second number, the duet “Lily’s Eyes” from Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman’s 1991 The Secret Garden, which he sang with Vincent Kempski. This number is beautiful but showy, all too often performed as a “battle of the Broadway tenors” that can get overbearing. McAllister and Kempski avoided excess and let the music and their voices speak for themselves.

Rayshun Lamarr, the final Signature regular, channeled Ben Vereen singing “Simple Joys,” a suitably summery song from Pippin, one of the first contemporary musicals. He was so clearly enjoying himself that if he bobbled the lyrics slightly it just added to the fun (the thrill of live theater!), as did his spectacularly swirly baroque jacket. (He seemed to be the only Signature player who didn’t get the memo about plain colors for the ensemble.)

Of course, the Signature cast, as much as they had a terrific fan base in the audience, weren’t the reason several thousand people turned up Friday night. That honor goes to the headliners, Tony winners Kelli O’Hara and Adrienne Warren. And as good as the ensemble was, the stars shone above them as bright as their coordinating silver gowns.

Kelli O’Hara won her Tony for starring in the 2015 revival of the beloved R & H classic The King and I. O’Hara has made a name for herself in Golden Age musicals; and from her lovely renditions of “I Have Dreamed” from that show and “So in Love” from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, you can see why. But she did open what she called her “setlet” with that early Sondheim; and the very model of the modern major musical composer, Jason Robert Brown, wrote a show for her in 2014, Bridges of Madison County. She closed her set with an affecting taste of that, “To Build Myself a Home,” accompanied by the cast.

And then, representing Team Contemporary, the evening’s other star Adrienne Warren came out swinging with another Funny Girl number, “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” faster and more stylized than Streisand’s original. Although this could be classed in the traditional camp, Warren put her modern stamp on it, and did even more with her next number, “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha. This classic 11-o’clock number is endlessly overdone by over-the-hill tenors in piano bars, but to hear it interpreted by a Black woman (especially in this moment’s cultural and political climate) brought tears to the eyes — particularly when she changed the pronouns to female in the final verse. Warren and O’Hara joined in a lovely duet of “Answer Me” from 2017’s The Band’s Visit. 

Headliner Adrienne Warren in ‘Broadway in the Park.’ Photo by Traci Medlock.

And then Warren got to show everyone why she was there. She won her Tony in 2020 for embodying the title character in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, and she gave the audience a high-voltage jolt of that in “River Deep, Mountain High.” Warren and the orchestra were thrilling; there was no need for lighting designer Adam Honoré, who had been using relatively unobtrusive colored lights that reflected off the conductor’s coat and matched the mood of the songs, to suddenly start swinging blazing yellow lights into the audience’s eyes. They were not needed to increase excitement; Warren was galvanizing on her own. All they did was induce headaches and make it intermittently impossible to see the singer.

Nothing could follow that but the finale, the aforementioned “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” But Warren started it off, and her subtle riffs lifted it out of the ordinary and made it fresh and moving.

Whether by design or serendipity, the cast was evenly divided between white and Black performers, and the audience, too, was more diverse than is typical for Wolf Trap, which usually resembles NPR with trees. For anyone who might consider the current Broadway diversity push forced, this concert proved why it is not. Performers from different backgrounds bring different styles to both contemporary and classic songs that are immensely refreshing. (Kudos, too, to the Sign Language interpreters, who were almost as much fun to watch as the singers.)

But in the end, there is no real reason to divide the new from the tried and true. People love to hear Broadway standards because they combine the comfort of familiarity with the excitement of fresh interpretations. And then, new works come along that build upon the old. As Sondheim said in “Putting It Together” — even as you’re searching for the next big thing, “If you want your work to reach fruition, What you need’s a link with your tradition.”

And when it comes down to it, whether old or new, what we love about live concerts is the chance to join and let music “take us away from everything that is going on,” as Kelli O’Hara said. Adrienne Warren added later, “Whatever you’re feeling, know that I see you and I feel you and I love you.” That is the joy of this kind of live performance; it felt like the audience and the performers were sharing it together.

Running Time: One hour 45 minutes with no intermission.

Broadway in the Park performed Friday, June 24, 2022, at Wolf Trap–Filene Center, 1551 Trap Road, Vienna, VA. See the Wolf Trap calendar. of future events, and see the Signature Theatre calendar of future events.

Wolf Trap’s digital program book for Broadway in the Park is here.

COVID Safety: Wolf Trap no longer requires patrons to present proof of COVID vaccination or a negative COVID test to attend performances at the Filene Center. Masks are welcome, but not required. In the event that an artist requests a different approach, Wolf Trap will communicate this information directly to ticket holders via email. Check the policies and guidelines prior to your performance for the most up-to-date information.

SEE ALSO:
Kelli O’Hara and Adrienne Warren to star in ‘Broadway in the Park’ at Wolf Trap (April 29, 2022, news story)

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Over the past [mumble] decades Jennifer has acted, directed, costumed, designed sets, posters and programs, and generally theatrically meddled in Maryland, Princeton, London, and Switzerland. She has made a specialty of playing old bats – no, make that “mature, empowered women” – including Mama Rose in Gypsy, the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella at Montgomery Playhouse; Dolly in Hello, Dolly! and Carlotta in Follies in Switzerland; and Mrs. Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, and Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady in London. (Being the only American in a cast of 40, playing the woman who taught Henry Higgins to speak, was nerve-racking until a fellow actor said, “You know, it’s quite odd – when you’re on stage you haven’t an accent at all.” She has no idea why she keeps getting cast as these imposing matriarchs; she is quite easy-going. Really. But Jennifer also indulges her lust for power by directing shows including You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown and Follies, and Woody Allen’s Mr. Big in the MP One Acts Festival. Most recently, she directed, costumed and designed the set for RLT’s She Stoops to Conquer. In real life she is a speechwriter and editor, and tutors learning-challenged kids for standardized tests and application essays.

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