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'80s night at the Orchestra: Where everybody knows your (song's) name

orchestra.jpegSometimes, when you're stuck in the '80s, you hold tributes to our beloved decade to unreasonable standards. You expect musical genius, wink-in-your-eye humor and the soothing reassurance that those honoring those 10 glorious years feel as much love for them as you do.

The trouble is that so often -- in movies like Hot Tub Time Machine, TV shows like Glory Daze and symphonic performances like the Florida Orchestra's Totally Awesome '80s series -- we often set our expectations a little too high.

Friday night's '80s program by the Florida Orchestra at the Straz Center was full of moments that had me smiling so hard, you'd think I was watching Caddyshack for the first time. And weeping a few times so that even the usher was checking to see if I was strung out on Bartles and Jaymes. (Damn you, Phil Collins!) But most of the songs fell between those extremes -- probably thankfully so for an too-often emotionally fragile 43-year-old who was only really surprised by the lack of any Journey tunes. (Like gag me a spoon -- no Don't Stop Believing? Fer sure.) 

Here were the notable moments of the evening.

THE MARTHA QUINN OF THE CONDUCTOR PODIUM: Guest conductor Sarah Hicks was the visual focus point, dressed from top to bottom in '80s fashion including acid-washed jeans, leg-warmers, sunglasses and accessories. Times performing arts critic John Fleming, whom I sat with, leaned over at one point and asked, "Can I call her the Martha Quinn of the conductor podium?" and I quickly nodded (and silently cursed myself for letting him beat me to the best line of the night.) She was Martha all the way, showing off a girl-next-door charm (she's 39 and a child of the '80s herself) and peppering the crowd with '80s trivia all night. (I think I only missed one -- I didn't recognize the commercial jingo for Capri Sun.) 

THE WEEPERS: Yes, I teared up during Separate Lives (Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin), the first song the orchestra tackled that had true symphonic roots. Let's face it, it's a song that's meant to tear your guts out, and done properly, it succeeds every time. I make no apologies. Other keepers/weepers included Cyndi Lauper's Time After Time, Peter Gabriels' In Your Eyes and Elton John's I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues, a tune I've never really appreciated before, but the orchestra seemed to savor the pacing.

THE GROANERS: The anthemic Welcome to the Jungle by Guns N' Roses was never going to be an easy sell, but the orchestra oddly enough eschewed using their 4-piece rock band for their opening number. Totally uncool, as Crockett might say. The result was a number that felt more like a Simpsons skit with the Springfield Elementary Orchestra racing hopelessly behind. Simple Mind's Don't You (Forget About Me) suffered from a little over-exertion on the vocals. Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart, another tune early in the program, was musically a success, but when a wind machine and thunder effect are added, you can't help but snicker. Just enjoy the cheese. We all need our daily servings of dairy.

THE CAMPY NUMBERS: Despite being sold as an "unapologetic and unironic" look at the '80s, it's best to approach this program as a night of campy fun. Lead vocalists Jared Oxborough (a dead-ringer for Will Arnett from where I was sitting) and Michelle Christina Delgado (who looks good enough in '80s fashion to be the prom date in my dreams) faced an uphill battle trying to tackle the singing styles of such diverse artists. They succeeded when they relaxed, dialed down the energy and embraced the campier approach. Prince's Let's Go Crazy, which could have easily been a nightmare, is great fun thanks to Arnett's ... damn, I meant Oxborough's ... over-the-top cheeseball intro. The signature guitar solo at the end is still there, and it's fantastic. I wanted to jump on stage afterward and high-five the whole gang after that tune. They had conquered mission impossible. Likewise, the softer touches worked wonders for Bon Jovi's Livin' on a Prayer and Michael Jackson's Thriller.

THE BIG WINNERS: It's not a pops program unless an orchestra goes for the obligatory TV theme song medley, but I loved every second of it. The orchestra moved seamlessly between The A-Team, Dallas, Hill Street Blues, Knight Rider and into the big medley finale of Cheers, extolling the very quiet and reserved crowd into singing along to "You wanna be where everybody knows your name." No takers. My guess is that when this show is repeated again Saturday night at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Pete and again Sunday at Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall (where I'll watch it again from right up front), they'll get plenty more volunteers. And beware, Sarah: This time I'll get the Capri Sun question right!

[Last modified: Saturday, May 21, 2011 9:46am]


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