by Kenneth Jones
Megan Hilty, the Broadway and television actress-singer whose volcanic voice is one of the primary reasons to watch the NBC musical series "Smash," made her Carnegie Hall debut March 8, singing an eclectic program drawing mostly from the heyday of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Judy Garland. Suave Ryan Silverman was also a featured vocalist.
Briefly swinging away from that general 1950s-60s period in the concert by The New York Pops, Hilty was perhaps most confident and powerful in a medley tribute to Dolly Parton, whose work the actress sang in Broadway's 9 to 5: The Musical (in that short-lived show, she was Doralee, the "backwoods Barbie" character that Parton originated in the source film).
A country twang and pop enthusiasm are clearly Hilty's sweet spots, as evidenced in Parton's "Here You Come Again," "Jolene" and "9 to 5" (complete with a real typewriter clacking away in the percussion section), but Hilty also exuded a depth of feeling in the traditional American pop arena — particularly with a pairing of Johnny Mercer's "Autumn Leaves" and "When October Goes" (in an arrangement by New York Pops music director Steven Reineke, who conducted) and a bluesy, aching turn on Nelson Riddle's chart for the Gershwins' "Someone To Watch Over Me."
Hilty may be blonde, perky and just this side of "ingénue," but there is a maturity to her approach to songs, suggesting that she has loved, lost and experienced things that enrich an artist's work.
For "Smash" fans, who were vocal in the historic house, Hilty sang the delicate Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman song, "Second Hand White Baby Grand," one of their original tunes from the series. The number tells of the bond between Marilyn Monroe and her mother, and explores the idea of finding something worthy within something seemingly ramshackle. It's a ballad that travels, and Hilty shepherded it expertly.
Hilty, perhaps a touch overwhelmed that she was making her Carnegie Hall debut, told the crowd that shooting for the second season of "Smash" ended March 8, and that the Friday Pops concert coincided with the season wrap party. (We didn't spy any "Smash" cast members in Stern Auditorium, the mainstage venue of Carnegie Hall.)
Drawing on Carnegie Hall history, Hilty held her own with Nelson Riddle's bongo-happy, frenetic, stream-of- consciousness arrangement of Harold Arlen's "Come Rain Or Come Shine," a version that Garland herself called "insanity" in her famous 1961 concert there. The writing of it conveys strained desperation, allowing an actress to make it seem as if she's hanging onto the pantleg of a guy who is walking away. But Hilty's gift of The Big Voice and The Big Note at the end of the song made the experience muscular, anthemic, heroic.
Ryan Silverman, currently starring as Giorgio in the acclaimed Classic Stage Company revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Passion (which you need to see), brought a hip-swiveling, slouchy, finger-snapping swagger to period songs, including Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley's "What Kind of Fool Am I?," Cole Porter's "Night and Day" (loosey-goosey with the lyrics, as Sinatra often was) and the sensual Latin-kissed song "Sway."
If there's a smoother, more assured bari-tenor, leading-man theatre voice at the moment, we don't know it. Silverman would seem to be poised to be more than just a pop-opera theatre star (he was a Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera and was cast as Maxim De Winter in the stalled Rebecca – The Musical). He can truly swing, charm and flirt.
Is anyone writing a musical about Dean Martin? Here's your star.