A Disney night at the Cincinnati Pops is always “Bella Notte” (as they sang in “Lady and the Tramp”) and Friday night’s “Magical Music of Disney” was no exception.
Like Tigger, Pops conductor Erich Kunzel is “the only one,” and Music Hall was nearly full to hear him lead the final concert of the Pops’ 2007-08 season.
It was also an occasion to celebrate the latest distinction Kunzel and the Pops have brought to the city: an invitation to perform at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing (August 9 and 10). Parts of the program were keyed to the Games, such as “Go the Distance” from “Hercules” and especially the encore, “It’s a Small World,” where two dozen young people bearing flags of the worlds lined up in front of the stage, while the Stars and Stripes and the U.N. flag were paraded onstage.
Everything was Disney, most of it available on one of the Pops’ three Disney albums (Telarc). There was also a drum-laced suite from “Tarzan” and end credits from the 2007 film “Enchanted.”
Guest artists were soprano Ashley Brown, tenor Steven Morgan and baritone Michael Lowe, with members of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music musical theater program, Winton Woods High School Varsity Ensemble, Lakota East High School Eastside Voices and School for Creative and Performing Arts Children’s Choir (the latter featured in a lively “Mickey Mouse March”).
The show’s real dynamite was the CCM cast, 19 singer/dancers stage directed and choreographed by CCM’s Diane Lala. Dressed in paint box colors, they lit up the stage where the Pops logo, disco balls and strings of white lights glowed against shifting background colors. The Pops performed behind white wicker fencing threaded with red roses.
“I don’t know what Einstein was thinking, but that’s my definition of energy,” said Kunzel after some particularly calisthenic hoofing by the CCM troupe to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Step in Time” (“Mary Poppins“).
Brown, a 2004 CCM graduate now starring as Mary Poppins on Broadway displayed the perfect Disney voice, recalling Julie Andrews in the “Mary Poppins” set. She was also a delightful "Belle“ (“Beauty and the Beast”), Ariel ("Part of Your World“ from “Little Mermaid”) and Jasmine (with Morgan in “A Whole New World” from “Aladdin”).
Morgan and Lowe, who will accompany the Pops to Beijing, shared “Gaston” (“Beauty and the Beast”) and “Go the Distance,” while each also had rousing solos of his own. Morgan’s “Heaven’s Light” from “Hunchback of Notre Dame” soared. Lowe delivered a dark, dramatic “Be Prepared” from “Lion King.”
Large ensemble numbers, invariably underlined by organ at the finish line, were what really revved up the crowd, as when the three soloists and choruses joined in “Beauty and the Beast” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” (“Lion King”). Pops music associate Steven Reineke enhanced communication between Kunzel and the choruses (on risers at each side of the stage) by conducting simultaneously from the center aisle.
The orchestra was in top form in sparkling settings of the Disney classics, including former Pops staff arranger Crafton Beck’s suite from Elton John’s “Lion King.” Pops associate principal clarinetist Jonathan Gunn gave a jazzy tilt to “Hakuna Matata.”
Opening number was “Disney Fantasy Medley“ (hear it on the Pops’ “A Disney Spectacular”), where the CCM cast, choruses and soloists were delightfully mixed and matched in16 favorites, including “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” “You Can Fly,” “Casey Jr.,” “Whistle While You Work” and “When You Wish Upon a Star.”