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Review: New Hamlisch tribute has intimate feel

Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Late American composer Marvin Hamlisch as photographed at Heinz Hall in Downtown Pittsburgh in October 2011. Hamlisch is one of only two people to win Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, Tonys, and the Pulitzer Prize for his work as a composer. He also won two Golden Globes. Hamlisch died Monday, Aug. 6, 2012, after a brief illness.

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Sunday, June 29, 2014, 1:39 p.m.

Spectacularly honored in life, composer and entertainer Marvin Hamlisch has been the subject of innumerable tributes in concert and on television since his death in August 2012. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra presented a terrific tribute concert in January 2013 to its principal pops conductor of 17 years.

A new Hamlisch tribute put together by pianist and frequent collaborator Kevin Cole debuted June 28 at Heinz Hall. While it will benefit from tweaking, the new show might be the most beautiful and moving portrait yet of the man and his music. It also was very well performed by Cole, vocalists Brian d'Arcy James, Sylvia McNair, conductor J. Ernest Green and the Pittsburgh Symphony.

The “Play It Again, Marvin!” concert opened with “A Chorus Line” Concerto, a new piece written by Cole that is a virtuoso romp through the great numbers of Hamlisch's most famous show, starting with “One.” Hamlisch loved Cole's pianism. One of the many wonderful photos that give this show its special character showed Hamlisch and Cole playing George Gershwin's music for their pleasure at two pianos onstage at Heinz Hall after a Pops concert.

Many other photos show the immense joy Hamlisch took in life, from delight in a good dessert to making a leaping catch of a baseball in the outfield at Yankee Stadium in New York City.

The program proceeded mainly chronologically, and included boyhood photos and home movies of the composer with his parents, sister and friends, as well as a song from a school show he wrote as a teenager.

The show featured many great songs that show Hamlisch's immense abilities, including a beautiful McNair performance of “Dreamers,” a wonderful song from the short-lived 1983 show “Jean Seberg,” and the themes from “The Swimmer” and “The Sting,” which, as Cole notes, launched a rediscovery of ragtime composer Scott Joplin.

The first half concluded with “A Mother's Voice” with images of Hamlisch with his mother Lilly and a family film of her. Cole and McNair should have come together at the front of the stage immediately after the song for a bow and then walked off to signal that intermission had arrived.

The second half featured two songs from “Sweet Smell of Success,” Hamlisch's serious show that had the bad timing to open after 9/11. They were strongly performed by James, who starred in it. McNair then sang “Through the Eyes of Love” from “Ice Castles.”

The most treasurable parts of the show were videos of Hamlisch performing his songs at the piano. “They're Playing My Song” from “They're Playing Our Song” was filmed intimately, as if we were experiencing his artistry at a party. No one does it better. “If You Really Knew Me,” from the same show, was videotaped at Heinz Hall, and includes the question, “Does the man make the music, or does the music make this man?”

The theme from “Sophie's Choice” had the emotional depth to be the first music heard after the show reached Hamlisch's death. It was followed by “If You Remember Me” and “The Way We Were.” The encore was a sing-along of “What I Did for Love,” with the words projected on the large screen above the orchestra. It is a perfect conclusion for a show that should have long legs.

Cole's show was presented in a slightly modified form at its debut because singer Maria Friedman did not perform as planned due to “travel issues.” Two songs she was to have performed, including “Nothing” from “A Chorus Line,” were simply omitted. Cole sang the second part in “A Mother's Voice” with McNair, and very well, indeed.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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