HOLLYWOOD—Every now and then, online pop-up ads can lead to a nugget. I was scrolling, when actor Kevin McKidd’s picture popped up. I wouldn’t have been that enraptured by his face alone, as, unlike my husband, I had never seen “Rome,” and I have watched “Grey’s Anatomy” only casually, but…the ad said he was singing. What? That got my attention. I kept reading. He was singing “The Great American Songbook,” with Michael Feinstein conducting the orchestra, both ingredients which I recognized and loved. When I asked my husband if he’d be interested in going, he said, “See Lucius Vorenus? I’d consider it.” And thus, a pop-up led us to discover the Pasadena Pops, in the Sierra Summer Concert Series, at the LA Arboretum and Botanic Gardens. What a find!

I’ve been going to the Hollywood Bowl for years, and whenever I consider moving out of LA (virtually every day, lately, with traffic being what it is), one of the main things that I have thought would keep me here is the Bowl. But I had never even known of this Arcadia venue. Comparisons to the Bowl are inevitable. They are both outdoor arenas, where you can bring food to eat, and wine and beer to drink, but the fact is, they are two very different venues.

The Arboretum is a gorgeous, magical setting for concerts. The very short entrance path is engulfed with a dense forest of trees, bordered by a pond covered by rich green algae. With a backdrop of the mountains, the grassy grounds of the event give it the inviting feel of a neighborhood get-together. We hit no traffic coming or going, no bottlenecks. Parking and entry to the park were a breeze. Smaller than the Bowl, the experience is instantly more intimate, and the Principal Conductor, Michael Feinstein delivers in a perfectly suited congenial style.

This is Michael Feinstein’s seventh season as Principal Conductor with the Pops, following Marvin Hamlisch, who had led for 15 years prior. Feinstein is smart. He brings in assorted talent and keeps the concert moving along with anecdotal history about each song and its composer. Feinstein seems to have personal connections with so many past greats of the music biz, betraying his apparent age. He jokes colloquially with the audience, referencing the ubiquitous peacocks, who inhabit the Arboretum. He clearly loves what he does, performing with an infectious warm smile on his face, for the older, somewhat staid, but clearly appreciative, crowd.

Kevin McKidd was the Hollywood name draw, but he sang only two songs from the Songbook. He could have done more. He was charming. He has a voice, but it was one strengthened by acting, which he better showed in his rendition of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s “Maria.” His “On the Sunny Side of the Street” was cute and playful, and loosened him up more, so it would have been nice to see him sing one more song.

Melissa Errico (“My Fair Lady’s” Eliza) represented Broadway, with lovely renditions of three classics, “Where or When,” the (thankfully) uncensored “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” and “Zing, Went the Strings of My Heart.”

Like the Bowl, the stage action was simulcast on two large video screens flanking the stage, but the camera work was better, capturing unique angles and viewpoints with clarity, and covering just the right performers at the right times. There were clever film clips, of Tin Pan Alley, and of “Gone with the Wind,” to accompany a few numbers, and dancers Victoria Rafael and Forrest Walsh brightened the stage with an effortless and classy touch, whether they were buttoning up their “overcoats,” or swirling in white chiffon, satin, and tuxedo. Feinstein sings a few songs himself, and Larry Blank, as the Resident Conductor, then conducts.

The orchestra was featured in the “Big Band Montage” and “Sing, Sing, Sing.” During David Rose’s “Holiday for Strings,” unfortunately, the otherwise balanced sound fell a bit short, ironically on covering the strings. There were a few humorous snafus. Feinstein introduced Kevin McKidd as appearing in “Rom-A,” and McKidd thanked Michael “Fine-steen,”and as Feinstein pointed out, the squawking peacocks were “almost keeping time,” and sirens “killed” the finale of the final song, and but such is the novelty of a live, outdoor performance.

Feinstein has just opened another nightclub, this one at Vitello’s, adding to his clubs in SF and NYC, and the Los Angeles community is lucky to have him in residence. The encore was a Feinstein solo of “Old Friend” on the piano, a bittersweet gem from “I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road.” It was a different sort of encore, but the introspective moment seemed well-deserved for a man just playing to his old friends in his very large, very lush open-air living room.

Pasadena Pops: “The Great American Songbook: Icons from Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood”

Pasadena Pops at the LA County Arboretum and Botanic Garden
Sierra Summer Concert Series
The Great American Songbook: June 22, 2019


Summer 2019 Season includes: Rhapsody in Blue (July 13); Michael Feinstein Sings Cole Porter (August 3); Music of Elton John Starring Michael Cavanaugh (August 24), MGM Movie Classics (September 14)

Lawn seats: $10 Child, $25 Adult; Table seats from $46-$150; or book a full table for 6 or 10 guests.

Gates open at 5:30 p.m. for picnicking, Concerts begin at 7:30; Food can be preordered, or you can pick up food there at the Food Trucks or across the way at the Santa Anita Westfield Mall. For detailed information on tickets, concerts, and the venue, go to https://pasadenasymphony-pops.org/concerts/sierra-summer-concert-series-2019/ or call (626) 793-7172.