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Review: Sparkling summer concert series opens in Bristol

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Kicking off Bristol Riverside Theatre’s Summer Music Fest, “Love Is Here to Stay” is a delectable concert of 23 familiar love-themed songs comprising chestnuts from the Great American Songbook and pop-rock favorites.

Playing through June 23, it launches with a medley of hits from the 1930s then moves decade-by-decade up to present-era songs and back again, ending with a reprise of the opener, “Love Is Here to Stay.”

That song, we learn from host Keith Baker, was George Gershwin’s final composition. He was in the middle of writing it when he died, at the age of 38, and his brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin, finished the song as a tribute to George.

BRT’s annual summertime festival (with two different programs to come in July and August) was conceived 22 years ago by Baker, and is clearly “his baby.”

The artistic director of BRT, Baker hosts the concerts, chooses and arranges the music, casts the singers, hires designers, and conducts the five-piece onstage band in which he plays keyboards.

Devoid of staging or choreography, yet slickly packaged with shiny Vegas-style production values, this first concert features five versatile singers in extravagant costumes designed by Linda B. Stockton.

The stand-out performer is Demetria Joyce Bailey. She brings the nuanced musical intelligence of a great jazz vocalist to her exquisite interpretation of “Misty,” and in the raucous Santana song “Smooth” she establishes a wonderfully tight relationship with guitarist Neil Nemetz that seems to elevate the music-making of everyone onstage.

While distractingly effusive when singing back-up or ensemble parts, Laura Giknis shines in solo turns that range from the slinky “Fever,” made famous by Peggy Lee, to the Bonnie Raitt blues-rock hit “Something to Talk About,” which she performs with cheeky fun, clad in a skin-tight, red-sequined jumpsuit.

Possessed of a remarkable vocal range, in terms of both pitch and style, Keith Spencer feels under-used, as we don’t get to hear enough of his delicious low notes; he has that kind of big bass sound that grows warmer, wider, and more engulfing the deeper it gets.

Yanellie Pabon-Garcia’s otherwise pleasing vocal work is marred only by her tendency to take breaths in the middle of musical phrases that should be sung uninterrupted, compromising the dramatic sense of the lyric, most notably as she shows off her powerful soprano in Cole Porter’s “So in Love,” from the Broadway musical “Kiss Me Kate.”

While the concert’s aim is not to expose us to new or challenging music – but rather to remind us of enjoyable songs that we may not have heard in a while – it nonetheless offers a few surprises.

A highly unusual arrangement of “The Girl From Ipanema” spotlights the band’s amazing violinist-singer-percussionist Claudia Pellegrini, and also features Baker talk-singing a verse in his gorgeous “classical actor” voice.

And those who only know the Manhattan Transfer’s haunting close-harmony version of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” will find tenor Patrick Ludt’s jaunty, musical-comedy-style rendition of the tune unexpectedly delightful.

This diverting series continues with “Woodstock at 50” (July 18-28), a celebration of songs performed at the historic 1969 music festival, and “Broadway Summer Spectacular” (Aug. 15-25), a presentation of show tunes from contemporary musicals.


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