Singer Steve Lippia can turn out a fine “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” But it’s clear he left his heart in Las Vegas.
His concert Saturday at Kleinhans Music Hall, billed as a tribute to the Rat Pack, turned out to be more a tribute to Vegas, where Lippia lives and has a great career going. Lippia loves Las Vegas, and it shows in his work. He told tales of Vegas legends whose paths have crossed his.
Good feelings peaked when he asked the packed house: “How many of you have been to Las Vegas? Clap if you’ve been to Las Vegas.”
It sounded as if everyone had. He stood there and beamed.
Lippia is the ultimate journeyman singer. Before embracing music professionally, he held responsible jobs. Most recently, he owned a contracting company. You can imagine him working hard to be where he is now.
He is low-key. Just for comparison’s sake, guest conductor Erin Freeman was more entertaining. Your eyes kept wanting to go to Freeman, a slim figure darting this way and that as she kept the music moving, with grace and elan. (“Is that JoAnn Falletta?” asked a near-sighted stranger next to me, squinting. I had to tell him it wasn’t.)
Freeman led the orchestra in sassy music from “West Side Story” and, for openers, a flashy Gershwin medley. When she wasn’t conducting, she showed an adorable, ditzy sense of humor. Unashamedly, she flubbed a speech promoting an upcoming concert by banjo player Bela Fleck. It completely won the audience over.
Lippia appeared to win the crowd over, too, in his own way.
He was best in the big numbers – “That’s Life,” for instance, with the BPO wailing behind him. “You have within your orchestra a big band,” Lippia informed us. And lo, you noticed that the musicians were arrayed unusually. The cellos were in the back, the woodwinds were on the right, and between them were the brass, augmented by saxophones and sounding exactly like a big band. That big band packed a lot of punch.
I got the feeling Lippia was used to a smaller space than Kleinhans. But he projected well, and he was affecting, without reaching or trying too hard. Cy Coleman’s “The Best Is Yet To Come” was a good song for him. He even looked a little like the suave but unpretentious Coleman. “What Kind of Fool Am I?” “Almost Like Being in Love” and “It Was a Very Good Year” were all sweet and straightforward. Lippia needs no score, no printed lyrics. He is relaxed, with everything down pat.
In “Send In the Clowns,” he was accompanied by pianist John Hasselback. Hasselback was restricted to a beginner’s piano arrangement, but it worked. The orchestral arrangements were, for the most part, excellent. The big band within the BPO rose to the occasion, pouring out music in squalls, squeals and blasts. Freeman led them deftly, clipping and calibrating the sound.
Lippia threw funny retro slang into “The Lady is a Tramp,” singing “broads” instead of “girls.” I loved that.
He went too far, though, when he suggested that the Great American Songbook should be broadened to include songs by the Eagles, the Beatles, Chicago, Elton John and Billy Joel. Ahem, Elton John and the Beatles aren’t even American! And Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are,” which followed, was pale after what had come before. It just didn’t work so well with the orchestra.
Nothing against “Just The Way You Are,” Mr. Lippia, but we like the American Songbook just the way it is.
Keep on singing it.