Heading into "The Streisand Songbook" last night at the Mahaffey with the Boston Pops and Ann Hampton Callaway, I was admittedly more excited about the singer than the orchestra. I'm a longtime fan of Callaway, and had enjoyed talking with her in a phone interview before the show. So when I looked at the playbill and saw that she wouldn't be coming on till after intermission, I was a little dismayed.
Shouldn't have been. Turns out hearing a full-on orchestra dig into Broadway overtures and, gasp, Marvin Hamlisch, was a hell of a lot of fun — and an experience you don't get when you see a show on Broadway or at the Straz, where the orchestra is often out of sight in the pit, not front and center in all its glory. Suave young Pops conductor Keith Lockhart led the white dinner-jacketed ensemble with grace and even a bit of nimble soft-shoe, leading his musicians through the urban bedlam of a Bernstein suite from Wonderful Town and West Side Story; the sly lilt of Jule Styne's overture to Gypsy; and the irresistible hooks in Hamlisch's Chorus Line overture, including the unmistakable opening piano chords of "One."
The ostensible connecting thread between these selections was that they all bore some connection to Streisand. That thread got stretched pretty thin at times: the theme from Ice Castles? Turns out that's another one by Hamlisch, a great pal of Streisand's. And Hello, Dolly? OK, right — as Lockhart reminded us, Streisand played Dolly in the flop film version of the Jerry Herman musical. The orchestra's rendition of the all-too-familiar song was my least favorite number in the program — you need a Carol Channing or a Louis Armstrong as the astringent to Herman's sugary melodics, and the Pops version bore dangerously close to elevator music.
At first, I worried that Ann Hampton Callaway, armored in a Kate Smith-y blue gown and Michelle Obama bangs, was going to do her segment in full emcee mode; the intro was a little too rah-rah, kind of like a PBS pledge break ("if you love Streisand as we do …"). But once she settled in, all doubts faded.