Grant Park Music Festival Showcases Laura Osnes and Santino Fontana
They may not have the name recognition of, say, a Patti LuPone or Hugh Jackman, but soprano Laura Osnes and baritone Santino Fontana are Broadway royalty – and not just because they played royalty as Cinderella and her prince in the 2013 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. In this concert with the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus, led by Guest Conductor Ted Sperling, they showed themselves to be the real deal as a Broadway Leading Lady and Man. In a program of just over 20 songs brilliantly selected by Sperling, the vocal and dramatic chops of Osnes and Fontana were showcased as they performed musical theater numbers written by Broadway’s greatest composers and lyricists.
Guest conductor Ted Sperling sets the stage
Sperling, clad in a white tux jacket set in contrast to the more casual but seasonally appropriate jacketless attire of the orchestra and chorus, opened the program with the Overture to the George Gershwin musical GIRL CRAZY- an alternately spirited and lush orchestral piece that includes segments of the standards “I Got Rhythm,” “But Not for Me,” and “Embraceable You.” Sperling – himself one of Broadway’s most respected musical directors and conductors for the Lincoln Center revivals of South Pacific and The King and I as well as many new musicals including The Light in the Piazza and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – next explained that the songs to be performed by the soloists and chorus, accompanied by the orchestra, were chosen to tell the story of a marriage from the first date, through the wedding, over rocky patches in the relationship and finally through reconciliation. He introduced soloists Osnes and Fontana, who with backup from the orchestra and chorus, launched into “Song of a Summer Night” from Frank Loesser’s THE MOST HAPPY FELLA – most appropriate for the mid-70’s temperatures and dry conditions on the night this writer attended.
Sperling’s selection of numbers was inspired – consisting of lesser-known (but not obscure) songs from musicals written virtually all the great writers of the genre. Songwriters represented in the concerts held Friday July 21 and Saturday, July 22 ranged from Gershwin and Irving Berlin, through Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim into more recent generations including Flaherty and Ahrens, Jason Robert Brown and Pasek and Paul (winners of an Oscar for “City of Stars” from LA LA LAND and a Tony for DEAR EVAN HANSEN). In mostly avoiding the best-known and well-work standards (CAROUSEL’s “If I Loved You” and an encore, the title song from OKLAHOMA!, were exceptions), the program was satisfying for die-hard musical theater fans like this writer who like to dig deeper into the songbook of American musical theater. The numbers were certainly familiar to Chicago theatergoers in the audience who would have heard some of them in recent productions like Theo Ubique’s THE MOST HAPPY FELLA, Marriott’s SHE LOVES ME, BoHo’s DOGFIGHT and Griffin’s RAGTIME.
Laura Osnes shines
Osnes, who won her first Broadway lead in a 2006 production of GREASE via a network TV reality show (“Grease: You’re the One that I Want”), replaced Kelli O’Hara in the 2009 revival of SOUTH PACIFIC and is currently appearing on Broadway in BANDSTAND, has by now established her credentials as a leading lady. Even so, the repertoire performed in these Grant Park Music Festival concerts allowed her to demonstrate a range that may not have been previously apparent form those earlier credits. She nailed such lyrical ballads as “Out of My Dreams” from OKLAHOMA! and “Will He Like Me” from SHE LOVES ME, but belted pleasingly with Fontana on a song written for Ethel Merman, the contrapuntal comedy number “Old-Fashioned Wedding” from the 1966 revival of ANNIE GET YOUR GUN. Returning for the second half in a white gown suitable for a wedding, she deftly handled physical comedy in “Getting Married Today” from Stephen Sondheim’s COMPANY, sung partially while down on her knees. The intensely dramatic “Dividing Day” from THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, a song of the deterioration of a marriage, was interpreted in heartbreaking fashion. Together with Fontana, Osnes displayed operatic skill in MAKE OUR GARDEN GROW from Leonard Bernstein’s CANDIDE. She showed herself to be a lovely, charming and lovable leading lady in the tradition of Julie Andrews, Shirley Jones and Kelli O’Hara, with a soprano in the league of those performers.
Santino Fontana was a revelation
Though expectations were high for Osnes as the better known of this duo, Fontana as the lesser-known quantity going in was even more of a stunner than Osnes. Fontana demonstrated an amazing range both vocally (his vocal range is nearly three octaves) and dramatically. His first solo, “Something ‘s Coming” from WEST SIDE STORY, is written for a tenor and Fontana nailed the high notes easily. In numbers included the touching “How to Handle a Woman” from CAMELOT, Fontana showed his true colors as a powerful baritone. Wherever he was on the musical scale, he showed an exceptional clarity and precision in his vocals.
His physical animation on “Something ‘s Coming” signaled the optimism and excitement of Tony (the character singing it in the musical) as he believes he’s about to meet someone special, but that was only a hint of the manic energy Fontana brought to “I Met a Girl” from BELLS ARE RINGING by the great composer Jule Styne and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, or his vaudevillians pastiche “Buddy’s Blues” from Sondheim’s FOLLIES. He could be as energetic as imaginable on “You Are Never Away” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ALLEGRO or “Love is an Open Door” from FROZEN (sung with Osnes), tender on their duet of “Our Children” from RAGTIME, and sultry on Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” (again with Osnes).
Ted Sperling charmed and entertained
More than just a conductor of orchestra and chorus or curator of the program mining these gems of musical theater, Sperling proved to be a charming host as well as piano accompanist and comic singer: truly the third star performer of this concert. At times, he stepped away from the podium to provide solo piano accompaniment (as in “First Date/Last Night’ from Pasek and Paul’s DOGFIGHT), but also took solos in “Getting Married Today” and “The Begat” from Burton Lane and Yip Harburg’s FINIAN’S RAINBOW – a feature number for the Grant Park Chorus. A highlight of his work as commentator was his wry observation that Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote to the gentle lyrics to “How to Handle a Woman,” was married eight times.
Sperling’s “song cycle” of a marriage grew in intensity during the second half of the program, as the story moved from the wedding (with Osnes’s nervous bride), through “Our Children,” marital problems (Osnes’s “Could I Leave You?” from FOLLIES) and ending with reconciliation and hope. After a 20-minute intermission, the trio of Sperling, Osnes and Fontana minimized the between-songs patter of the first act and effectively let the songs speak for themselves. The cycle concluded with Bernstein’s thrilling and majestic “Make Our Garden Grow,” a fitting conclusion employing the talents or orchestra, chorus and soloists to their fullest advantage. It was such an emotional finale, it was almost a shame to follow it with two encores. The first was a medley of “Almost Like Being in Love” from Lerner and Loewe’s BRIGADOON and “This Can’t Be Love” by Rodgers and Hart, from THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE. The final encore was OKLAHOMA! – another showcase for soloist, orchestra and full chorus.
Though the last encore was such an old chestnut, arguably the most recognized of all show tunes, A BROADWAY ROMANCE was above all a demonstration of the artistry of so many of its writers. Musicals are entertaining and popular, to be sure, but at their best they are emotional and thoughtful as well. It’s a hard to imagine a pops concert making that case any better than this one did.
For more information on the Grant Park Music Festival visit the GPMF website.
Photos: Norman Timonera
Grant Park Music Festival concerts continue through August 19.
Photos courtesy of Grant Park Music Festival
Pritzker Pavillion of Millennium Park