Trisha Yearwood earned an immediate standing ovation, a bouquet of roses and a kiss on the cheek from the musical director following her all-too-brief appearance Monday night (Oct. 30) at the second annual Broadway Meets Country concert in Nashville. After nearly an hour of New York stage performers singing country songs, and the other way around, she closed the first set with a stellar rendition of “Somewhere” from West Side Story.
A fan yelped as soon as Yearwood strode on stage, causing the singer to glance in her general direction with a raised eyebrow and a grin — not exactly something you’d see on the Great White Way. After all, New York actors are trained not to break character. Nashville artists, on the other hand, forge an audience connection by keeping it real. That fact alone makes it odd to see a Broadway performer sing “Heads Carolina, Tails California” with jazz hands or a country artist try to squeeze in all the words of a Funny Girl favorite.
Yearwood’s exquisite ballad proved to be the highlight of the evening, which included surprising selections from Josh Gracin, Raul Malo, Lorrie Morgan, Joe Nichols, Clay Walker, Lee Ann Womack and Chris Young. Stage performers included Laura Bell Bundy, Michael Cerveris, Felicia P. Fields, Peter Gallagher, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Brian d’Arcy James, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Julia Murney, Felicia Finley and crowd favorite Ben Vereen. Barbara Mandrell shared hosting duties with Gallagher and made it look easy. The show was held at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s James K. Polk Theater.
Starting things off, Womack goofed a few lines of “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” a song from Funny Girl, but nailed the notes when the song most demanded it, especially at the big finish. Cerveris tackled a Keith Urban song, followed by Gracin and Goldsberry’s duet, “That’s All I Ask of You,” from Phantom of the Opera. Murney’s take on Sugarland’s “Something More” led one to wonder if anyone invited Jennifer Nettles, who knows a thing or two about stage choreography.
Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash were represented with Malo and Bundy’s take on “Jackson.” Looking elegant, Morgan turned in a yearning, understated version of “Maybe This Time.” The full-circle story in Mitchell’s own composition, “Waiting for Life to Begin,” called to mind Bill Anderson, if he were writing for Lonestar.
Things really picked up when Brian d’Arcy James and Chris Young squared off on “You’re Nothing Without Me,” from City of Angels, in which a fictional character faces his author. Young’s baritone never faltered, and his stage presence and charisma might hint at a second career choice. Fields and Nashville newcomer Joanna Cotten submitted exciting versions of “No One Else on Earth” and “What I Did for Love,” respectively. Bundy returned for “All Jacked Up,” working the stage like a pro. Draped in a trench coat and donning a cowboy hat, Vereen immediately captivated the audience on the opening lines of “Wichita Lineman.”
After the intermission, the Grascals didn’t incorporate the very capable house band (led by the animated and talented Stephen Oremus, of Wicked) on their bluegrass version of “River in the Rain” from Roger Miller’s Big River. However, the stylishly dressed Joe Nichols used the house musicians to full effect on his swingin’ version of “Luck Be a Lady.” In a true treat, guitar god Steve Cropper stepped out to accompany Gallagher on “Still I Long for Your Kiss,” written by Lucinda Williams.
The Broadway stars then took the limelight for a while, with the exception of Walker strutting through Kenny Rogers’ part on “Islands in the Stream.” After that, Malo earned a standing ovation as well for the stirring ballad, “Bring Him Home.” The starting notes were ridiculously high but the ka-pow moments in the middle of the song were no struggle at all for his majestic baritone. At one point, he rose from his stool to belt it out as only the former frontman of the Mavericks can do. He closed the song in the upper range, too, but not before giving goose bumps to his admirers.
To close the show, dozens of members from the touring cast of The Lion King (which happens to be in the midst of a Nashville run) tickled the crowd with a tribal-influenced “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.” With its African rhythms, it sounded neither country nor like a typical musical. Lucky for them, this audience appreciated music that may hard to classify but is easy to enjoy. “Hakuna matata,” in other words.
The event benefited TPAC Education and the Actors’ Fund of America, of which Mitchell is president.