Several times during the opening night performance of Broadway vet Matthew Morrison‘s solo concert—accompanied by the massive orchestral sounds of Orange County’s critically-acclaimed Pacific Symphony—the popular Gleeheartthrob referred to the jazzy evening as a sort of “homecoming.”
It’s quite a sweet, reverent sentiment coming from the OC native, and understandably so considering he spent his teen years honing his musical theater skills here locally at the Orange County High School of the Arts before moving on to become a Tony-nominated Broadway star and, later, an Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated TV fixture.
He truly is an embodiment of a “local-boy-done-good,” and with that in full display, the charming Morrison played for the “home town crowd” beaming with confidence and undeniable showmanship throughout the evening. And in return, he received loud, well-earned cheers from the enthusiastic audience.
Dubbed “Valentine’s Day with Matthew Morrison,” the three-night engagement of Morrison’s entertaining, high-energy take on swinging, big-band jazz standards and classic Broadway showtunes continues through Saturday, February 15 at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.
But right before Morrison graced the audience with his hour-plus set, the Pacific Symphony—under the direction of Principal Pops Conductor Richard Kaufman—performed their own brief, yet still rousing program of, what else, romantic songs that included beautiful arrangements of “Samson & Delilah,” “All The Things You Are,” “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing,” “Someone To Watch Over Me,” and Alan Silvestri’s score for the Father of the Brideremake. In between, Kaufman made brief introductions and asides that were delightfully amusing.
Then after a brief intermission, Morrison—who first humorously introduced himself with heightened but self-effacing superlatives—finally emerged to thunderous applause from the near-capacity crowd. There’s little doubt that many of the patrons in the audience were comprised of so-called Gleeks, of course, because there certainly was a higher decibel than usual to those screeches for a Pops Symphony concert.
And thankfully—for Gleeks or otherwise—Morrison did not disappoint.
Dressed in a custom-fitted tuxedo like a new-school Rat-Pack member, TV’s Mr. Schuester has ditched the sweater vests and transformed himself into a cool, fedora-topped 21st Century song-and-dance man. It’s a guise that truly works for him, and he absolutely proves it with the songs and arrangements in this concert set, many of which can be found on his most recent album Where It All Began, itself a collection of timeless jazz standards released last year onAdam Levine‘s label 222 Records.
Much of the music in the concert and on the album originated on the Broadway stage, which, naturally, is an obvious homage to his lauded pre-Glee roots (for the few who didn’t know, before taking on his role in Ryan Murphy‘s hit FOXTV series, Morrison made his Broadway debut in the stage adaptation of FOOTLOOSE which later led to his breakout roles in the original casts of HAIRSPRAY and THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA and, eventually, the critically-acclaimed revival of SOUTH PACIFIC).
Hearing Morrison singing these songs live backed by the full orchestral might of the Pacific Symphony was an awesome treat to say the least. And aside from the Pacific Symphony, he was also joined onstage by a fellow Gleepersonality—Brad Ellis, the non-speaking piano man in the McKinley High choir room. Ellis served both as this concert’s principal piano accompanist and its musical director.
Morrison kicked things off with the high-swinging “It Don’t Mean A Thing”—complete with a cute choreographed pas de deux with a coat rack. Yes, folks, not only does the guy sing the Great American Songbook, he also dances to it (unlike his peers who’ve made a mint revisiting these standards for albums and concerts but basically just park themselves in front of a mic). It’s quite a shrewd and smart way to distinguish his act from the rest—adding the element of dance and theatricality to an otherwise normal jazz concert.
Well, he certainly has the résumé to back it up.
He followed it up with a rhythmically-altered (and, ultimately, slightly cheesy) “Luck Be A Lady” from GUYS & DOLLS punctuated with Timberlake-lite gyrations in conjunction with its seductive beat (it was, for me at least, the lone, very minor hiccup in an otherwise solid concert presentation).
And in between songs, Morrison provided amusing anecdotes and reminisced often about his past, including his first experiences performing both at OCHSA and at the Buena Park Youth Theatre (the overhead jumbo screen provided visual evidence via old photos from his past as well). As it turns out, his original plans of becoming a soccer player was squelched after being sidelined by an injury, causing him to discover the realm of theater arts—which, of course, the world now appreciates.
“I was a jock,” Morrison joked. “But my sports were ballet, tap, jazz…”
Effortlessly switching gears from up-tempo jazz to quieter, more melancholy torch songs, Morrison’s engaging show provided the audience plenty of reasons to cheer. Along with rousing, big-band renditions of “Sway,” and “The Lady Is A Tramp” (which he nonchalantly restarted when he flubbed a few lyrics), and a rather mood-swinging rollercoaster of a medley featuring songs from WEST SIDE STORY (which he happily recalled as the “butchest show” he was ever weened on), he also gave the audience a terrific blues-y “Come Rain Or Come Shine” mashed with “Basin Street Blues” that I absolutely loved, and a smokin’ hot “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.”
But by far my favorites of the night were his quieter, gentler songs that tugged at the heartstrings. His exquisite, strings-enhanced rendition of Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns” was just marvelous (he seemed even endearingly surprised when he got teary-eyed afterwards). And perhaps, arguably, his best musical moment of the concert came during a beautiful triptych of songs that recalled his first auditions in New York for actual paid work in the theater. Starting with a samba-fied “Hey There,” followed by a jazz-swinging “On The Street Where You Live,” Morrison then transitioned to a lovely “As Long As She Needs Me” that had me whispering under my breath… “wow.”
Later, he even teased the audience with the possibility of recreating his shirtless performance of the ultra-romantic “Younger Than Springtime” (from his stint in the Lincoln Center revival of SOUTH PACIFIC). Alas, he only undid his bow tie to the disappointment of many females in the audience (and, yeah—let’s get real here—even a few of the men), claiming he can only ever sing the song shirtless if he’s at the Lincoln Center.
His final song was an appealing “Singing in the Rain” punctuated by an umbrella dance interlude (sadly, it wasn’t the mashup with Rhianna’s “Umbrella” that they did on Glee, but it was still lovely), followed by an adorable encore of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of “Over the Rainbow.” As a fitting end note to the “homecoming” concert, Morrison—with ukelele in hand—surprised the audience by inviting a lucky high school student from his alma mater to duet with him on the song, reminding the young theater kids in attendance to keep dreaming—just as he did when he attended school here.
Wonderful job, Matt. You certainly made OC proud.