Spotlight Central
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Spotlight Central

“‘S Wonderful!” Ella and Louis with the NJSO LIVE! at The State Theatre

By Spotlight Central. Photos by Love Imagery

Two college students living in the heart of Boston in the 1970’s, we climb the stairs at the MBTA’s Symphony subway “T” stop to the street where we find ourselves directly across from Boston’s legendary Symphony Hall.

We are here tonight to see “The First Lady of Jazz,” Miss Ella Fitzgerald!

No strangers to “Lady Ella” — we saw her once as high school students at New York City’s Lincoln Center — as sophomore and junior college music majors, we feel we are now prepared to provide a much more educated critique of her musical talents.

And yet again, “The First Lady of Song” simply blows us away with her unique phrasing, incredible diction, and world-famous tone, not to mention her warm and inviting personality.

To us, she truly is “‘S Wonderful.”

Fast forward 40 years.

We’re in New Brunswick, NJ — noticing all the young college students on bustling George Street — as we make our way down towards the State Theatre.

We enter the venue this beautiful Sunday, April 23, 2017 afternoon looking forward to seeing the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of Ella and Louis with the NJSO starring Byron Stripling and Marva Hicks.

As we take our seats, the lights dim, and the fabulous New Jersey Symphony Orchestra starts to play a rousing version of Louis Armstrong’s 1930’s staple, “Tiger Rag.”

Soon, Byron Stripling enters, trumpet in hand. He lifts his horn to his lips and begins to play. His gorgeous natural sound emanates throughout the auditorium, delighting the audience.

As he holds the final note of the song for what seems like an hour — comically feigning pain — Stripling already has the crowd in the palm of his hand cheering for his outstanding performance!

Moving on to Louis Armstrong’s 1928 recording, “St. James Infirmary Blues,” Stripling takes to the microphone and sings with a rich baritone voice, as the orchestra — conducted by Maestro Lee Musiker — deftly accompanies him. The low brass walks in rhythm as Stripling wails above with a sultry feel, commanding the stage and bringing the song to life.

Greeting the crowd by jokingly telling them to “please be seated” even though they already are, Stripling has the audience in stitches when he sings a rendition of “Kansas City” in a language he calls “blues gibberish” — lyrics which sound soulful but cannot be understood by anyone.

Promising, “Everything we sing for you today you will be able to understand!” Stripling launches into an outstanding version of Armstrong’s memorable 1929 recording, “Saint Louis Blues.” As stars shine behind him on the stage, the orchestra bumps and grinds along with Stripling’s trumpet, creating a symphony of bluesy sound that gets the audiences’ toes tapping.

Introducing his musical partner for this afternoon’s concert, Mr. Stripling welcomes Marva Hicks, whom he says performed on Broadway in Motown the Musical and even sang duets with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson.

Entering in a stunning blue gown, Hicks performs a playful and energetic rendition of Ella Fitzgerald’s 1938 signature song, “A Ticket, A Tasket,” impressing the audience with her warm, round sound.

Hicks reminds the audience that this week marks the 100th birthday of the “First Lady of Song.” Moving on to a bouncy version of Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things,” Hicks sings — accompanied by a rhythm section of piano, drums, and bass — before Stripling joins in with a sparkling trumpet solo.

Following inspired applause, Mr. Stripling jokes with the audience inquiring, “What would happen if Ella Fitzgerald married Darth Vader?” quickly responding, “She’d be Ella Vader,” to which the crowd chuckles.

Moving on to an elegant version of George and Ira Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” the beautiful line of the orchestral strings accompanies Ms. Hicks’ natural and controlled vocal.

Mr. Stripling joins in on the microphone and the two singers take turns intimately singing to one another before Stripling ends the number scatting some signature Louis Armstrong low notes.

Introducing conductor Lee Musiker — calling him a “true musician’s musician” — Stripling informs the audience that not only is the maestro a talented conductor and pianist, but that he also spent years working with many well-known musicians, including a long-time stint as musical director for Tony Bennett.

To conclude the first half of the program, Stripling and Hicks perform a swinging version of Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing).” From the rousing orchestral introduction to the trumpet solo and the scat singing, the performers elicit grand applause from the enthusiastic crowd.

After intermission, Stripling returns to the State Theatre stage to sing Armstrong’s 1928 recording, “Basin St. Blues.” As the orchestra echoes him, he picks up his trumpet — gleaming under the lights — and plays, the stage elegantly dressed in a starlit purple backdrop. Scatting effortlessly, he sings, “Come along with me… down the Mississippi,” as the audience responds, singing each line back to him in an impromptu call-and-response.

Moving on to one of the highlight numbers of the show, Mr. Stripling performs an emotional rendition of one of Louis Armstrong’s signature songs, 1967’s “What a Wonderful World,” touching everyone in the audience with his heartfelt performance.

Not to be outdone, Marva Hicks enters the stage looking stunning in her strapless black gown and performs an outstanding version of The Gershwins’ “‘S Wonderful,” the orchestra expertly accompanying her with a sweet and lovely Latin-inspired arrangement.

Announcing to the crowd that composers George and Ira Gershwin wrote the next three pieces for a classical audience — “to be performed on the opera stage,” explains Stripling — he, Hicks, Musiker, and the NJSO go on to play a trio of classic numbers from Porgy and Bess.

On “Summertime,” a mournful trumpet sets the mood for Hicks’ smooth and soulful vocal interpretation. Then, Stripling wows the crowd with his soulful vocal rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

Finally, Hicks gives a tour de force performance of one of the highlight numbers of the afternoon, “My Man’s Gone Now.” Her voice crying out, weeping, Hicks wails in a crescendo of expressive sound. Obviously overcome with emotion — and wiping away real tears — Hicks takes a bow while the audience cheers for her outstanding rendition of this Gershwin classic.

Demonstrating their range and versatility, Stripling and Hicks then perform a swinging up-tempo version of a number which Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald each recorded individually — Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

Afterwards, Maestro Musiker takes a moment to introduce the rhythm section players for today’s concert. Explaining that these musicians — along with so many members of the NJSO — happen to be comprised of top-notch music educators, Musiker asks the audience to promise they will consider supporting the arts in education so as to help educate our country’s next generation of musicians.

At this point, in yet another comical moment from the show, Stripling takes Musiker’s baton and pretends to play the part of the orchestral leader. In an effort to teach the maestro how to do his job, he counts off the next song explaining to Musiker, “The guys said to tell you they wanted you to give them three taps before you start.”

As the maestro shows he’s clearly enjoying Stripling’s highjinks, for the final number of the afternoon, Hicks and Stripling go on to perform a rip-roaring version of a song Ella Fitzgerald recorded many times, “Sweet Georgia Brown.” As the joyful music flows through the auditorium, it puts everyone in a happy mood, notably Stripling who jitterbugs to the music!

As Hicks laughs, Lee Musiker takes a hot piano solo.

By the thrilling conclusion of the number — as Hicks and Stripling trade off improvisational scat-singing licks— the audience springs to its feet!

Hicks takes a moment to thank the NJSO and the State Theater. Stripling, however — who says he hasn’t yet “officially been introduced tonight” — decides to introduce himself to the audience as “Wynton Marsalis.”

For an encore, Byron/“Wynton” returns to the stage to perform a memorable rendition of a song which Louis Armstrong recorded multiple times, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” Instructing the audience to “get some porkchop juice in your throat!” Stripling teaches them how to sing the tune’s final lyrics — “Oh, yeah” — in the style of the great Louis Armstrong, to which the audience happily complies.

After hearty applause, the audience makes its way out of the theater. At this time, we take an opportunity to chat with several members of the crowd to get their opinions about the performance we’ve just experienced this afternoon.

First, we chat with Deb and Joe from Monmouth Junction.

Deb exclaims, “Byron Stripling and Marva Hicks were fantastic together,” going on to note, “I was astonished, too, by the orchestral accompaniment,” and adding, “I didn’t expect the comedy aspect either!”

Deb’s husband— about whom his wife reveals, “Joe should have been born in 1900 so he could have enjoyed the music of the 1940s while it was happening” — asserts that “as a big band fan of musicians like Benny Goodman, Glen Miller, and Artie Show, I loved this show.” Joe also acknowledges that he and Deb attend a variety of NJSO offerings, and they especially enjoy performances that “feature numbers from the Great American Songbook.”

In the State Theatre lobby, we chat with one of the younger members of this afternoon’s crowd, Joseph, 25, from New York City, who discloses, “Even though I didn’t know every single song, I knew most of them — and it was a great performance — just lovely.”

Attending today’s concert as a present for his 25th birthday, Joseph readily admits, “When I received the tickets, I didn’t expect an entire symphony!”

Joseph’s companion, Xin, also from NYC, says she especially enjoyed “the symphony orchestra, particularly on tunes like ‘Summertime,’” but also enjoyed the “improvisation at the end of ‘Sweet Georgia Brown,’” not to mention the “personality” of Stripling and Hicks on stage.

Joseph’s dad, Joseph Sr. from Piscataway, confesses he is the one who treated his son to today’s concert noting, “This might be the last chance to see this type of music played so well.” Calling the quality of the musicians “outstanding,” Joseph Sr. singles out Byron Stripling’s performance stating, “It was amazing that with just the flip of a switch, he became Satchmo, honoring Louis Armstrong with his talent.”

Lastly, we catch up with Donald and Elsa from Neptune, here this afternoon to celebrate thier 60th wedding anniversary. Calling today’s performance, “Great!” Donald explains that, to him, “The actual Ella and Louis have always been superstars,” Elsa adding that the couple “saw them together live in concert many years ago.”

So impressed by the “quality of the musicians” here today, however, Donald and Elsa say they are very happy to have been able to celebrate their special occasion by enjoying this afternoon of “live music.” Describing it as a “different experience from just hearing the original artists on their recordings,” the happy couple joyfully concludes, “There’s nothing like this — it truly is “‘S Wonderful.’”

For more information on Byron Stripling, please go to byronstripling.com. To learn more about Marva Hicks, please see facebook.com/marvahicks. For further information on the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, please see njsymphony.org. Lastly, for future events at the State Theatre — including the NJSO’s performance of Schubert’s “Great” Symphony on May 14 — please check out statetheatrenj.org.

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