by Ryan Leeds
For the Generation X Broadway crowd, Friday night’s New York Pops concert was a fond, nostalgic trip down memory lane. The evening’s theme, 42nd on 57th: Broadway Today, featured guest artists Betsy Wolfe and Darren Criss and selections from powerhouse shows of the 80s and 90s including Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Little Shop of Horrors. More modern pieces like The Bridges of Madison County, Honeymoon In Vegas, and Once were also represented.
Ms. Wolfe’s name is yet to be held with the same esteem and notoriety as Idina Menzel, Kristin Chenoweth, and Sutton Foster, but just wait. A talent like this will not fly under the radar for long. She has appeared on Broadway in Bullets Over Broadway, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and in the recent Off Broadway revival of The Last Five Years. Ms. Wolfe’s consummate vocal range and powerful voice will cause you to sit up and take notice. The same could not be said for her duet partner for the evening, although if you ask Mr. Criss how great he is, he will likely saturate himself in superlatives—more on that later.
The New York Pops, under Steven Reineke’s masterful direction, opened the evening with a rousing arrangement of selections from The Phantom of the Opera. Criss, who recently appeared in Broadway’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, followed with a muted version of “I Love Betsy” from Honeymoon in Vegas. Wolfe joined him in the patter heavy “Getting Married Today” from Stephen Sondheim’s Company and later, the two performed the beloved contemporary power ballad “Suddenly Seymour” from Little Shop of Horrors as well as a reflective version of “Falling Slowly” from Once.
Criss conceded that he is not a traditional Broadway performer and that he has always leaned more towards the genre of pop. To his own surprise, he found himself working on a television show (Glee) that focused more on musical theater styles. Still, he is a talented musician who can accompany himself extremely well on piano and guitar. His acoustic version of “I Dreamed a Dream” was lovely as his light voice lends itself more to the singer-songwriter genre.
Yet Mr. Criss cruised past a comfortable state of confidence and drove full throttle into ego. During the introduction of a duet with Wolfe, he abruptly passed off his guitar to her, dismissively saying, “Here hold this,” while he adjusted the microphone stand. A uncomfortable Wolfe glanced at the audience with a look suggesting, “Can you believe the nerve of this guy?”
Original composers Jason Robert Brown and Robert Lopez were on hand to accompany their own selections. Brown joined Criss and Wolfe in a duet of “Before and After You/One Second and a Million Miles,” a piece from The Bridges of Madison County that fit Wolfe like a custom tailored suit, but left Criss in the dust. EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winner Robert Lopez sat at the piano to play his international hit, “Let It Go” from Frozen. When I saw it on the program, I was trepidatious. The song has grown tired through overexposure—at least until Wolfe gave it voice. She unthawed the piece with conviction and, for lack of more eloquence, melted the audience.
Criss and Reineke provided a jovial moment towards the end in the silly “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” from The Book of Mormon and Wolfe had audiences leaping to their feet with the show’s finale, “Maybe this Time” from the Kander and Ebb classic, Cabaret.
The issue of poor sound design continues to plague the concert series. Usually the orchestra overpowers the vocalists. On Friday evening, the opposite held true. Overall though, the program was pure fun.
The New York Pops’ next concert is The Music of John Williams: From Spielberg to Star Wars on April 8 at 8 p.m.
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook