WESTFIELD — With a downpour in Westfield just hours before the concert, many ticket holders held their breath to see if the scheduled “Back to Broadway” concert by the New Jersey Festival Orchestra (NJFO) would come to pass. The skies cleared, the people came with their lawn chairs, a picnic supper or drinks and settled in for a beautiful concert under the stars.
When Maestro David Wroe spoke to the audience about the selections he had decided upon, he likened building the program offering to preparing a gourmet meal – it needed to be a smooth blend of up-tempo tunes and ballads that needed to be balanced and weighed to see where they belonged in the lineup. And that balance of classic numbers from Broadway shows was quite a tasty one. With selections from Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls to Jule Styne and Stephen Sondeim’s Gypsy, there was something for every Broadway fan. Two stellar guest soloists borrowed from Broadway – Julie Benko and Paige Faure – were featured and made each song her own.
From the musical Oklahoma, the Rodgers and Hammerstein favorite “I Can’t Say No” was the perfect song to display Mr. Benko’s playful nature. Dressed in a stunning white outfit, she was a delight visually and musically. The audience smiled collectively and applauded her spunk. When she segued into the Barbra Streisand rendition to “I’m The Greatest Star” from Funny Girl, there were nods to the classic Streisand interpretation, but with Ms. Benko’s twist. We believed her when she sang of her star quality.
Ms. Faure’s offering of “So in Love” from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate was an ice cream sundae dripping with hot fudge sauce. The lyrics, “In love with the night mysterious” echoed through the trees. The acoustics were superb, highlighting the orchestra and vocals in perfect balance. As Mr. Wroe said, “There are so many hits from that show, it was difficult to select just one to present.” This presentation was a cherry on top of a luscious voice backed up with an orchestra that was coaxed and cajoled lovingly by the maestro. Another beautiful song sung by Ms. Benko was “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables. The somber story song was heightened by magnificent French horn and dramatic timpani. In “A Piece of Sky” from Yentl the harp’s presence in places soared to the heavens of the garden on Dudley Street in the backyard of Keith S. Hertell, the NJFO Board President.
The soloists sang three duets where their range and versatility of voice and acting skills blended fun, energy or pathos. “Marry the Man Today” from Guys and Dolls showed their show biz pizzazz. Interspersed throughout the evening, Mr. Wroe interviewed both soloists, so that the audience got to hear of their Broadway experience. Ms. Benko and Ms. Faure’s poignant “For Good” from Wicked provided a time to reflect on how people, especially during the pandemic, have “left a handprint on my heart.” Likewise, when the duo closed the night with the upbeat, “If Momma was Married” from Gypsy, the audience was bid adieu by Mr. Wroe. He explained that the Saturday evening was a prelude to “our gift to you,” a virtual concert, “New Beginnings, Part 2, with renowned tenor fare, dazzling dance classics, Broadway favorites, and more” premiering on Thursday, July 22 at 7 p.m. at www.njfestivalorchestra.org.