(front to back) Alex Newell and Steven Reineke with The New York Pops.
(Photo: Genevieve Rafter Keddy)
By Ryan Leeds
All rise for the divas! That was a repeated course of action this past Friday night at Carnegie Hall, where the audience repeatedly leaped to its feet during The New York Pops scintillating concert, “I’m Every Woman: Divas on Stage.”
The ovations were well-deserved as conductor Steven Reineke (along with the help of his husband Eric Gabbard) assembled what might be considered the most exceptional New York Pops concert I’ve ever attended.
Reineke’s arrangement of three Diana Ross numbers (“Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Touch Me in the Morning” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”) opened the high-energy event before the maestro introduced Mandy Gonzalez to the stage. Gonzalez, currently appearing as Angelica Schuyler in Broadway’s Hamilton, took the night off for the festivities. She tore through the Oscar-winning James Bond theme “Skyfall” before delivering a romantic rendition of Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me,” a tune best known by another diva, Ella Fitzgerald.
The next diva to rule the night was Alex Newell, currently appearing on NBC’s Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and last seen on Broadway in the revival of Once on This Island.
Dressed in a crimson-sequined dress with boa-like sleeves, Newell owned the audience with two 1950s classics: “I (Who Have Nothing),” and Aretha Franklin’s “Think.”
The third and final diva to be introduced was Carrie Manolakos (Wicked and Mama Mia! National tours). Making her Carnegie Hall debut, she delivered a deconstructed interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” and a powerful version of the Whitney Houston classic “I Will Always Love You.”
All three powerhouses united for the first act finale “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
The night’s only minor misguided moment came at the top of the second act. Reineke’s arrangement of The Miami Sound Machine’s 1985 mega-hit “Conga,” was satisfactory, but that style of groove demands fewer strings and much more exclusivity from a brass section.
Aside from that, the concert rolled right along with an anti-Valentine sentiment, “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” from Gonzalez and Newell.
After Newell departed the stage, Gonzalez remained and candidly spoke about her recent breast cancer diagnosis. She dedicated the next number, “My Heart Will Go On,” to her husband. Manolakos returned for a duet of the legendary “Happy Days Are Here Again/Get Happy,” made famous by Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland.
Manolakos, also a singer-songwriter, sat down at the piano and delivered her original composition, “The Nothing.”
Newell joined her for “When You Believe,” a Stephen Schwartz song from the film, The Prince of Egypt. Newell, with unbelievable range, brought the house down with the song of all songs for divas, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls. Before sending the audience dancing into the street, Reineke said, “We’re gonna turn this place into a disco,” and the night’s three divas had everyone on their feet with the night’s title song, “I’m Every Woman.”
Per tradition, Reineke acknowledged one of The New York Pops’ educational programs, Kids in the Balcony, which distributes free tickets to students in New York City public schools. As he called out each name of the school, their response was more enthusiastic than usual. These future patrons of The New York Pops were having a blast. With youthful, energetic programming like this, The New York Pops will continue to cultivate an appreciation for live music.
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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, Facebook, or Instagram.