If you haven’t been to a National Symphony Orchestra Pops concert before, imagine a regular NSO concert transplanted to the pool deck at Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City following a magic show. Or as Pops conductor Marvin Hamlisch put it, “This is fantastic! It’s like a cruise ship!”
Hamlisch takes up the part of hammy emcee with verve. Like your boozy uncle at Thanksgiving, he keeps the festivities going with an abundance of corny jokes. Introducing Tito Puente Jr., he waxed on about Latino culture: “I can’t say much about the language, but the women…wow!” The audience, largely middle-aged Latina women, ate it up.
For this second-to-last concert in their Pops series this year, the NSO backed Puente Jr. and Jon Secada in two separate acts. Though they did not perform together, they meshed well in both style and substance. Puente Jr. took the Jersey resort atmosphere a step further, strutting on stage wearing designer shades (indoors), diamond studs in each ear and too much hair product. He and Hamlisch had a cute intergenerational melting pot chat and then commenced an upbeat tribute to his father, the Latin jazz legend.
Tito Puente Jr. is hardly the first musician to follow in his famous father’s footsteps. Both the program and stage banter can tell you how far along one is in forging one’s own career. Take, for example, Femi Kuti, who performed at the 9:30 Club in April, or Vieux Farka Touré, who came to DC9 a year earlier. Both play in styles largely derivative of their fathers Fela and Ali, respectively, but have taken clear departures and built fanbases of their own. And Femi likes to drone on about geopolitics between his Afrobeat numbers. Puente Jr., in contrast, talks mostly about his dad, and the songs he played were all orchestral arrangements of his dad’s hits which Puente Sr. had written but never performed himself. The set was fun, although some of Puente’s songs didn’t translate well to a full orchestra, including a kind of tired version of “Oye Como Va.” Hamlisch looked confused at times, having to look over his shoulder as Puente’s pianist signaled to him how many bars were left in the percussion solos.
Things took a decidedly easy-listening turn in the second act with Jon Secada. If you’ve never seen Jon Secada, you’ve probably heard him in the waiting room at your dentist’s office. The Cuban-born Latin pop singer is even struttier than Puente Jr. and cornier than Hamlisch, belting out such lines as “Do you see what I see? A rainbow shining over us” without the slightest wink of irony. He did do a lot of winking though—-mostly at those swooning housewives in the audience. One lucky lady got to come onstage and enjoy a serenade from Secada, who sang about the “teardrops falling from [her] Spanish eyes.”
Overshadowed by such sheer displays of smoothness, the orchestra was consigned to a background role. Dressed in white dinner jackets, they could have passed for the show’s waitstaff. While appropriate for Secada, the Kennedy Center is an awkward venue for Puente and the dancier of the NSO’s Pops concerts (Ozomatli closes out the series on June 25). But even if you can’t dance, at least you have Hamlisch and his running commentary: “Can you imagine if the Jews had this music?” Oh, Marvin.
Jon Secada and Tito Puente Jr. perform Friday, May 13 and Saturday, May 14 at 8:00 pm at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $20-$85. (800) 444-1324.