A-list starpower was combined with a passel of familiar pop standards in “Singin’ in the Rainforest, featuring Great Songs from the Movies,” a glossy Carnegie Hall revue to benefit the Rainforest Foundation. The spectacle of familiar voices tackling an assortment of beloved standards was the main musical draw, with a few surprises along the way.
The show opened with Billy Joel, Elton John, Sting and James Taylor, decked out as dark-suited hipsters, trading verses on “That’s Amore,” accompanied by orchestra and vocal chorus. The four then traded off on individual numbers, with Joel adopting a campy Sinatra stance to deliver “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” Taylor manifesting playful self-effacement on “Pennies from Heaven” and John donning a plastic beak and cavorting with a pair of nubile dancers on a spry “Woody Woodpecker Song.” Sting — whose wife, Rainforest Foundation founder Trudie Styler, produced the event — took a relatively low-key approach on “Moon River” and “True Love.” For the latter, he was joined by India.Arie, whose solo rendition of “The Long and Winding Road” was presumably justified by the song’s inclusion in the Beatles documentary Let It Be and the Bee Gees/Peter Frampton debacle Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Big screen heartthrob Antonio Banderas served as co-host with wife Melanie Griffith, and delivered an unexpected highlight when he took the mike for an appropriately swoony reading of “Mona Lisa.” But it was Bette Midler who decisively ratcheted up the energy level, delivering abundant charisma and humor on commanding renditions of “Lullaby of Broadway” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” Cult jazz balladeer Jimmy Scott ended the show’s first half with a haunting “Over the Rainbow.”
The show’s second half concentrated largely on rock-era material, with much of the orchestra supplanted by an electric band, including Narada Michael Walden (who served as co-musical director with Hal Willner) on drums. Potty-mouthed puppet pooch Triumph the Insult Comic Dog traded barbs with Sting, before the two joined forces for a cross-species duet of The Jungle Book‘s “I Wanna Be Like You (The Monkey Song).” Sting and Joel donned acoustic guitars for a sing-along Beatles medley, and Joel delivered Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” with appropriate bombast, while John dipped into the Elvis Presley songbook with a sincere “Loving You.”
Jimmy Scott returned for a spellbinding “Someone to Watch Over Me,” which gave way to Taylor’s good-natured stab at “The Twist,” which featured some surprisingly agile dance moves from Elton, Sting and Banderas. Things grew even stranger when Michael J. Fox donned an electric guitar to lead much of the all-star cast in a loose but good-natured “Johnny B. Goode.”
Although much of the program’s appeal was in the one-shot match-ups of singers and songs, the evening’s most ecstatic ovations arrived when the artists performed tunes with which they’re closely associated. John’s flamboyant version of the Who’s “Pinball Wizard” — which he performed in the 1975 film adaptation of Tommy — and Midler’s movie-spawned smashes “The Rose” and “Wind Beneath My Wings” were the night’s show stoppers.