To hear Julie Andrews wrap her emotional self around a valentine provided by Rodgers and Lorenz Hart was proof — as though any were needed — that she is a glory that age refuses to diminish.

Courier Journal
11 July 2008
By Andrew Alder

Andrews provides ageless, glorious sounds of music

In the iconography of Anglo-American entertainment over the past 50 years, few celebrities can claim the exalted status held by Julie Andrews. She is, pure, simply and unabashedly, a star. And Friday night's audience at the Kentucky Center's Whitney Hall treated her that way, with the kind of rapturous collective embrace that shoots past adulation and verges on delirium.

Dame Julie was at the center for the premiere of "The Gift of Music," a two-part full evening affair involving the Louisville Orchestra and five young American singers. The first half focused on songs by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, followed after intermission by "Simeon's Gift," a musical adaptation of the children's book Andrews authored with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton.

"The Gift of Music" will soon travel to such cities as Philadelphia, Atlanta and Los Angeles, rendering the Kentucky Center the modern equivalent of a Broadway show opening out-of-town at New Haven's Shubert Theater (No word yet on whether that makes the Galt House a close cousin of the Taft Hotel). Happily, for the legions of fans in the Whitney, Friday night's performance looked a good deal more like a gala premiere than a work-the-kinks-out preview.

As she freely acknowledged at the start of the evening, Andrews — because of failed vocal-cord surgery on her vocal cords a decade ago — is not the singer she was in her heyday. Still, thanks to canny musical arrangements that skirted the top portion of her voice, and which exploited its rich, dusky middle, she was able to make genuinely substantial contributions. Her essential color and miraculous diction remain intact, and few artists occupying Broadway and the West End can shape a phrase as intuitively as she can.

Though one could argue that Andrews is just as closely associated with Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe — creating Eliza in "My Fair Lady" and Guenevere in "Camelot" — Rodgers and Hammerstein loomed undeniably during her long career. Indeed, the very first image Friday night was film director Robert Wise's famous overhead shot of Andrews launching into the title song of "The Sound of Music."

When a silver-gowned Andrews swept onto the Whitney Hall stage, the audience erupted in one mighty shout of greeting. Not long afterward came her younger colleagues: sopranos Christiane Noll and Anne Runolfsson, tenors Stephen Buntrock and Kevin Odekirk and baritone Jubilant Sykes.

Staged by Graciela Daniele with Ian Fraser conducting the LO, they launched into "Getting to Know You" from "The King and I," moving on to a chest-thumping, slightly campy account of "There is Nothing Like a Dame" from "South Pacific."

The voices, all heavily milked, were belt-a-rific in a contemporary Broadway manner, readily projected but tending toward a monochromatic way of elaborating a vocal line. At their best — particularly Runolfsson's lustrous rendition of "Nobody Told Me" from the seldom-heard "No Strings" — the original R&H idiom was honored. At their least successful — for instance, Sykes' blustery, ill-paced reading of Billy Bigelow's "If I Loved You" from "Carousel" — the authentic style was at best approximated.

Moving on to "Simeon's Gift," an expanded, orchestrated version of a project that originated at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, N.Y., Andrews narrated while the five singers became costumed characters. This is a gently didactic fable about how a roving troubadour who finds his greatest inspiration through nature, and with Buntrock taking the title role the semi-staged treatment blended innocence with a reasonable degree of musical interest.

Fraser's score, melded to lyrics by John Bucchino, held up successfully amid the busy orchestrations. The creators wisely didn't allow the symphonic context to overwhelm the story's essentially straight-ahead emphasis. It was just long enough to flesh out basic narrative outlines, yet not so extended that a viewer/listener younger than 10 would lose interest.

Inevitably, though, "Simeon's Gift" receded next to the musical elements that preceded it. To hear Julie Andrews wrap her emotional self around a valentine provided by Rodgers and Lorenz Hart was proof — as though any were needed — that she is a glory that age refuses to diminish.

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