Although a program of musical theater golden oldies has long been a staple of the San Diego Symphony’s summer programming, Friday’s stunning homage to the musical theater genius of Jerry Herman at The Rady Shell soared high above those generic revues.The show’s title The Best of Times: Megan Hilty Sings Jerry Herman, only hinted at the wealth of musical prowess offered: guest conductor and emcee Rob Fisher, vocalist Jasmine Rice LaBeija, half a dozen soloists from the San Diego State University Musical Theatre Program, and the San Diego Master Chorale also joined the San Diego Symphony in this emotionally probing, richly rewarding immersion into the world of the late Jerry Herman.
Opening with “It’s Today” from Herman’s 1966 blockbuster Mame, Hilty established her formidable belting panache that clearly puts her in the lineage of the Broadway icons Ethel Merman and Mary Martin. This high-octane arrangement surrounded Hilty with the choral heft of the San Diego Master Chorale as well as six gifted singers and dancers from the San Diego State University Musical Theatre Program, setting a laudable production standard that sustained the entire evening.
But belting is surely not Hilty’s only calling card. She caressed the tender lyrics of “It Only Takes a Moment” from Herman’s other 1960s smash hit Hello, Dolly!—gently weaving together the composer’s short, almost choppy phrases into extended luminous melodies that elevated this simple ballad into a shimmering dialogue with the glowing harmonies of the Master Chorale. Although the song “Love, Look in My Window” is not always included in Hello, Dolly! productions, Hilty gave a touching account of this poignant ballad, sleekly accompanied by Rob Fisher at the piano.
The men of the Master Chorale and four of the SDSU singers displayed their macho chops welcoming Hilty in a riveting account of the musical’s signature tune “Hello, Dolly!” And the arrangement’s brassy orchestration as well as the SDSU students’ snappy choreography aptly crowned this familiar number.
Jasmine Rice LaBeija has mastered the unlikely career combination of heralded drag entertainer and accomplished operatic tenor. LeBeija immediately won over The Rady Shell audience with her smoldering, defiant account of “I Am What I Am” from Herman’s acclaimed 1983 hit La Cage aux Folles, then transitioned without dropping a beat into Calaf’s exalted tenor aria “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot. For a moment this breathtaking vocal feat united the usually opposed camps of verismo opera lovers and musical theater fans. There should be a Nobel Prize for that, IMHO. On the program’s second half, LaBeija returned with a smart rendition of “The Moon Song” from Mame, assisted with the spirited voices of the Master Chorale women.
Herman’s first Broadway success, the 1961 Milk and Honey, may have featured an unlikely story—a busload of American widows visits Israel hoping to land husbands—but Herman’s winning songs and a cast that included the memorable Molly Picon sold it on the Great White Way. For this concert, the SDSU cadre, Sarah Marie Hernandez, Chase Lowary, Milo Daniel Mee, Kyle Montgomery, Vivian Romero, and Jackson Wright, gave an engaging account with clever choreography of the show’s hit song “Shalom.”
Under Rob Fisher’s consummate, stylish leadership, the orchestra’s exuberant accompaniment throughout the program expressed Herman’s essential optimism and joie de vivre. Kudos to Trumpet Principal Christopher Smith and his section for vibrant themes and descants tinged with a rakish edge, suggesting a first-class pit orchestra. Opening the program with the buoyant bravado of the Overture to Mame and offering the saucy “Entre’acte” from the 1974 Mack and Mabel post intermission, the orchestra smartly set the stage for this Herman tribute, and Fisher’s upbeat commentary illuminated his musical odyssey.
This concert was presented by the San Diego Symphony on Friday, July 8, 2022, at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park on San Diego Bay.