Houston Pops conductor Steven Reineke
Photo: Houston Symphony
Alan Menken songs are full of characters dreaming of something: a pair of legs, a house in the suburbs, mingling with normal. Meanwhile, the Friday crowd for the Houston Symphony’s Pops season opener had been dreaming of attending a concert under even semi-normal circumstances for months.
Or it sure looked that way. Masked but not socially distanced, well represented by those under 25, the public gave off an almost electric charge. They applauded loudly when conductor Steven Reineke said how happy he was to host the all the orchestra returns to the stage. It’s hard to know what “normal” really looks like, but the sight of a nearly full Jones Hall was terribly reassuring.
Menken, who has won more Oscars than any other living person (eight), writes music worthy of the Disney empire that he helped revive: uplifting, reassuring, pleading. (And, okay, maybe a little manipulative.) The opening opening, a patchwork of his most important themes, painted with two of Menken’s primary musical colors: warm and open, sassy and playful.
Wrapped in ropes or cushioned by horns, his songs create a moment for the characters to own and a platform for singers to ignite their talents. The lush arrangements simmer emotions until they reach the inevitable boiling point, which is a sight guaranteed to behold.
A lot of Friday’s songs were ambitious – the characters want to go somewhere, or somewhere; or be somebody, or somebody else. Numbers like “Fier of Your Boy”, cut from the movie “Aladdin” but restored in the musical; or “Santa Fe”, from the musical “Newsies”, fit that description. Both were sung by Matt Doyle (“Company”, “Spring Awakening”) with just the right amount of eighth notes in his sparkling tenor. Jordan Donica’s (“Hamilton”) beefy baritone also elevated the big-shouldered “Hercules” number “Zero to Hero” to heroic proportions.
On the other hand, a character who is genuinely happy with her lot in life, thank you very much, can be a pretty refreshing change of pace. Montego Glover, former Tony nominee for “Memphis” and frequent guest of Pops, nailed that sentiment with the tempo “Fabulous, Baby!” from the musical adaptation of “Sister Act”. And Donica made a devilishly haughty narrator on “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” a wavering march from “The Little Mermaid” that the symphony’s brass section attacked with vile delight.
That said, the evening really belonged to soprano Katie Rose Clarke, who holds the distinction of being the longest-serving Glenda in Broadway’s “Wicked” history. Not only did the Friendswood native have the loudest cheering section of the night (by far), she also drew the most interesting material. (However, Glover’s beaming rendition of Oscar-winning “Pocahontas” “Colors of the Wind” – a forward-looking plea for the environment and equality – was right behind.)
Clarke leaned into the bittersweet longing for “Part of Your World,” as the majestic crescendos of the “Little Mermaid” centerpiece faded into sonic tendrils soft as feathers. In “Somewhere That’s Green,” from “Little Shop of Horrors,” his melancholy kept the irony of Howard Ashman’s words at bay (pining for plastic-covered furniture and frozen TV dinners); “Home”, from the musical “Beauty and the Beast”, a balanced sour bitterness with a grainy determination.
If the evening had perhaps a ballad or two too many, a) it was inevitable given the nature of the program; and b) the cumulative effect of all these emotions would cause a lump in the throat of the most hardened Stoic. As if to prove this point, the charming duet “Beauty and the Beast” by Donica and Glover was followed by “A Whole New World”, the four voices soaring to celebrate a renewed purpose and a remarkable songwriter.
Better yet, however, was “Be Our Guest”: a bold, brassy reminder that invited audiences to embrace the reforged bonds of our shared brotherhood. A dream come true, you might say. Or a whole new world.
Chris Gray is a writer based in Galveston.