NJ Festival Orchestra Rings in The New Year with Panache

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For The Westfield Leader

WESTFIELD — When Broadway shows are canceling performances left and right because cast/crew have tested positive for Omicron, the New Jersey Festival Orchestra (NJFO) persevered and presented an impressive concert at the Westfield High School auditorium on New Year’s Eve. Countless patrons called the day or two before the show to cancel their ticket order. But the lucky three or four hundred vaccinated and masked folks who did attend got a spectacular night filled with solos, duets, dance, and orchestral arrangements that were top-notch.

Who doesn’t love a rousing Cole Porter number? Music Director/Conductor David Wroe opened the show with “You’re the Top” from Anything Goes. Two more numbers from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate proved to be crowd favorites as well. Paige Faure’s “So in Love” rendition was like pulled taffy — creamy, connected, and seamless. A smoky saxophone helped set the sultry mood. Juxtaposing that atmosphere, Ms. Faure later in the program had fun with “Always True to You in My Fashion.” If she looked familiar to audience members, it’s because she was a guest vocalist in one of the summer concerts held in the Hertell Gardens in Westfield. Her versatility was refreshing. In her onstage chat with Mr. Wroe, she revealed that she was a trained dancer from a very early age and developed her singing voice later in her career.

Early in the program, the talented, charismatic male vocalist, James Moye, invited the audience to “Come Fly with Me” in a true freewheeling, laid-back Frank Sinatra manner. He further enticed the audience to join his high spirits with a wonderfully jazzy rendition of “Feeling Good” from The Roar of the Greasepaint — The Smell of the Crowd. Showing he can sing pop, jazz, Broadway and rock, Mr. Moye opened the second portion of the concert with an energetic “Seventy-Six Trombones” from The Music Man. The lyrics say, “There were horns of every shape and size,” and although there were only half a dozen or so horns in the NJFO, they made an impressive sound.

At that number, one couldn’t help but send a silent prayer for the health of Hugh Jackman (who plays Harold Hill), who is suffering from the virus and had to cancel several performances on Broadway of that show.

Another Meredith Willson favorite from that classic musical is “Till There Was You.” Marissa McGowan was superb in finesse and the beauty of lyricism. When Mr. Moye joined her for the ending refrain, their voices blended as if they had been singing together for years. A second duet that was favorably received was “In His Eyes” from Jekyll & Hyde by Frank Wildhorn. The two sopranos passionately sang the roles of Lucy and Lisa, who are both in love with the same man.

Because the night was peppered with Stephen Sondheim songs in tribute to the 91-year-old who died this year, there was plenty of humor. Ms. Faure let the words drip sarcasm in the song “The Ladies who Lunch,” made famous by Elaine Stritch. Instead of trying to copy Ms. Stritch’s inimitable, gravelly voice in the song from Company, Ms. Faure gave it her own spin, singing more than speaking the lyrics. In the segment called “A Tribute to Stephen Sondheim,” Ms. McGowan played the ironic twist in the lyrics “Could I Leave You?” from Follies. Both females did the lyricist/composer’s work proud.

One of the most lovely, romantic songs of the night was from the 1953 operetta Kismet, “Stranger in Paradise,” where Mr. Moye and Ms. McGowan thrilled with their expressive voices that were highlighted with a lovely harp. The tenor’s and soprano’s voices complemented each other in texture and intensity.

Adding the visual component to the auditory delight was a quartet of four dancers from the Dance Theatre of Harlem. They brought sass and punch in “Hot Honey Rag” from Chicago. The only thing that could have made the evening better is the addition of more numbers to showcase their stellar talent.

There was no annual 50/50 raffle or snacks and beverages for sale during intermission this year out of an abundance of caution against too much mingling; masked audience members chatted with neighbors and friends during the intermission and before and after the concert.

When Mr. Moye sang the exciting “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, we were reminded by Maestro Wroe that Mr. Sondheim wrote the lyrics to that classic show. The music’s pulsing beat and powerful orchestration made it sound like a train coming down the tracks at breakneck speed. With the words, “The air is hummin’ and something great is comin’,” may it be a portent of good health and happiness for all in 2022.