“Wow!” That’s what singer-dancer Kirby Ward exclaimed as he and his lovely counterpart Joan Hess broke a stage kiss and approached the end of their evening with the Las Vegas Philharmonic Pops Orchestra and guest conductor Stuart Chafetz.
“Wow” echoed in the minds of the audience. Wow indeed. This represented one of the most prolific Pops performances in recent history. The orchestra has never sounded better, despite its usual limited rehearsal time and its first outing with Chafetz. Hess and Ward sang and danced their way through a nearly two-hour show and did so flawlessly.
The energy generated on the stage was palpable. The buzz in the lobby was, “Which part did you like best?” Nearly everyone had a different answer, such was the variety and polish offered through the evening. The orchestra got things underway with the overture to George Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy.” The piece contains a handful of the composer’s best-known works including “I Got Rhythm,” “But Not for Me” and “Embraceable You.”
Hess and Ward gave a preview of their dancing prowess with a brief tap routine, following which Hess showed the size and range of her well-suited voice with “Johnny One Note.” The two traded off with Ward’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and Hess’ paean to love, “The Song Is You.”
Chafetz got away from the podium, as he did a few times during the evening, to serve as a pleasant but low-key master of ceremonies, proving to be engaging and bubbly (but not too much so).
He introduced what proved to be the highlight of the first half, the two principals emulating the great Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers with “Cheek to Cheek.” It was reminiscent of the famous pair in their heyday. It also underscored the truth of the wag who penned “she could do anything he could do, but in high heels and backward.”
Then came a transition to big band jazz of the day, Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” followed by Glenn Miller’s “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “In the Mood.” The latter featured the stars back in the dancing spotlight performing an energetic and demanding “Lindy.” (If you don’t remember what that is, you’re probably the wrong age to try it.)
Intermission gave Hess yet another opportunity for a costume change, of which there were several in the course of the show. How many? Frankly, I lost count, but each one spotlighted a new cut and vivid colors. In addition to stage presence, we were kept interested by her spectacular wardrobe.
After intermission, the pace continued with “All That Jazz” from the musical “Chicago.” There were too many highlights in the second half to do more than list a few. One was “Carioca” from the film “Flying Down to Rio,” another nearly perfect takeoff on Astaire/Rogers.
I’m reminded of a supposedly true story stemming from Astaire’s first-ever screen test. A single piece of paper bearing Astaire’s name was unearthed in a studio filing cabinet. The comments it bore were “Can’t act, slightly bald, also dances.” The writer probably became a major studio executive.
Hess nearly brought the house down with her vocal on “I’m Gonna Live Til I Die,” which Ward followed with a splendid version of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine.” At this point, Chafetz had the orchestra stand and be acknowledged by section and gave a sincere tribute to Las Vegans.
Encores were called for. A medley of smile tunes, “Smile” and “When You’re Smilin,” brought the audience to its feet again and all left with faces full of smiles. It was a well-rehearsed and exceptionally well-performed Pops concert.