'Play It Again, Marvin!' rekindles Hamlisch memories

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He’s been gone for less than two years. But already we are realizing that there was no one quite like Marvin Hamlisch, such a singular conducting, composing, storytelling sensation that he stood alone in the pops firmament.

The tributes and accolades haven’t stopped. While New York City pulled out a string of Broadway, rock and film stars, most recently at a Public Theater gala, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra dealt with the personal side of the man who they set on his own starry Pops pathway, which gradually encompassed six orchestras.

It was as if he was on a mission to keep the Great American Songbook front and center in people‘‍s minds. And along the way, he had plenty of entertaining stories to tell.

Now as “Play It Again, Marvin!” demonstrated at Heinz Hall on Saturday night, maybe we really didn’t know him at all.

Of course, the show was all about Hamlisch with a great array of childhood photos, the story of his proposal (wife Terre Blair was there, moved to tears), subsequent wedding photos, his love of animals and the Yankees and more. It showed how he became “Marvin!,” a star in his own right.

Pianist Kevin Cole, who arranged the show and did a pretty fair imitation of Hamlisch, was our guide, surprisingly witty and enthusiastic with crisp renderings of a whole array of songs.

A cleverly constructed script kept things moving with occasional vignettes, like a scene between a young Marvin and friend Eddie (Mr. Cole and Brian d’Arcy James) that evolved into a teenaged male version of “Sing” from “A Chorus Line.”

While the first half established the history of the man making the music, it let Hamlisch and his music speak for itself in the second half of the program. There were a couple of film clips, particularly “They’re Playing Our Song,” showing a younger version of the maestro at the piano -- with all the passion and energy pouring off the screen -- in a stunning performance.

“Marvin!” had to cover a lot of territory, both personal and professional, which it did very well. After all, he was a PEGOT, one of the few people to win a Pulitzer, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.

It was all unabashedly sentimental, but then Hamlisch wore his heart, so genuinely, on his sleeve. It was easy to see that everyone on the stage knew that and appreciated it, because they all brought their “A” game.

Besides Mr. Cole, Mr. d’Arcy and the orchestra itself, so true to the music, the rest of the cast contained encore participants from last fall’s tribute, including conductor J. Ernest Green and vocalist Maria Friedman, who unfortunately had travel problems and didn’t make it to Pittsburgh.

Sylvia McNair, was a great addition, though, so warm and clear on songs like her duo with Mr. Cole, “A Mother’s Voice,” although its tender touches gave the first segment a soft ending. Perhaps it could be moved elsewhere in the program. Mr. d’Arcy repeated his rendition of “The Fountain” from “Sweet Smell of Success,” certainly a signature song for him and a real highlight.

It was as if the audience was rediscovering Hamlisch (the woman next to me was singing along with “Nobody Does It Better”) and loving it. Coincidentally they were invited to participate in “What I Did For Love” at the end, which they did, with a “singular” pleasure.

Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish: jvranish1@comcast.net. First Published June 29, 2014 12:00 AM

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