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Hollywood Bowl opens with the queens of country and funk

Reba McEntire and Chaka Khan, both divas by virtue of their talent, were inducted into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame at this season's opening night concert Friday.

June 24, 2012|Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • Chaka Khan performs at the Hollywood Bowl for the opening night of the 2012 season.
Chaka Khan performs at the Hollywood Bowl for the opening night of the 2012… (Francine Orr, unknown )

This post has been updated.

What better way to usher in summer than by celebrating legends outdoors with a loaded picnic basket, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and a night sky streaked with pastel fireworks as though Monet had been dispatched by God to spruce up the heavens?

Reba McEntire, the queen of country, and Chaka Khan, the queen of funk — two singers whose genre-crossing talents have impressed connoisseurs from across the musical spectrum — were inducted into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame on Friday. The 2012 opening night concert raised more than $1 million for the Los Angeles Philharmonic's music education programs.

The honorees have more in common than you might expect. Divas by virtue of their talent rather than their temperament, they prefer slipping into the music (McEntire as a character, Khan as an instrument) even as their astonishing vocal gifts reinforce their stardom.

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These sorts of affairs tend to be more memorable as events than as tour de force showcases, but these canny veterans displayed just enough magic to satisfy their fans while leaving them hungry for more.

Julie Andrews, lending her singular poise to the evening, served as host. Thomas Wilkins conducted with aplomb. L.A. Phil music director Gustavo Dudamel spoke movingly via video about the impact of the orchestra's series of music education outreach initiatives. To prove the point, the advanced wind and brass players who make up YOLA at HOLA (Youth Orchestra Los Angeles at the Heart of Los Angeles) made their Bowl stage debut with Brahms' "Hungarian Dance No. 5."

Along with video tributes, celebrity guests paid homage to the inductees. Lily Tomlin, who portrays McEntire's mother on the upcoming ABC series "Malibu Country," made a dryly ironic video appearance to congratulate her costar and send her love; Melissa Peterman, who was on McEntire's previous television show "Reba," humorously shared what it's like to sing a lullaby to your baby after a country music icon has impossibly raised the bar by crooning into the delighted little darling's ear. Music producer Randy Jackson was on hand to extol Khan's powerhouse sound and performing prowess and to thank his friend for showing the would-be superstars on"American Idol" how it's done.

If the entertainment industry were required to field an all-star team, McEntire wouldn't just be on it — she'd likely be voted MVP. When she came to Broadway in 2001 in "Annie Get Your Gun," jaded types rolled their eyes at what seemed to them like stunt casting. But it didn't take long for this sharpshooting performer to conquer the New York theater world, which has been clamoring for her to come back ever since.

McEntire opened with one of the musical's liveliest tunes, "You Can't Get A Man With A Gun," adopting the spryness of Annie Oakley not with forced theatricality but with a kind of giddy neighborliness that is just right for this Irving Berlin ditty. She followed up with the equally effervescent "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" from "South Pacific," reprising for one glorious number her portrayal of Nellie Forbush, a role she performed to great acclaim in concert versions at Carnegie Hall and the Bowl.

There's a reason McEntire has hosted the Academy of Country Music Awards as often as she has — her rapport with audiences is instant, effortless and undeniable. Looking glamorous in a sparkly dress, she sang "I'm A Survivor" and "Fancy," and found the truth in both songs. But then perhaps the secret of McEntire's success is that she holds fast to experience. Feet planted firmly in her own life, she's able to reach out and touch ours with her genuineness.

Twenty years ago I caught Khan in peak form at the Apollo Theater in New York, and the memory of that night, of that voice radiating waves of plaintive ecstasy, still raises my pulse. The vocal parabolas she traces, rising from smoky depths to brassy pinnacles, are thrilling to experience live. The late Vesta Williams, who sang backup for her before becoming an R&B star in her own right, once said during a radio interview that if she could go to a store and buy anyone's voice it would be Khan's, so enamored was she by its aggressive femininity.

Khan, a 10-time Grammy winner, still has that trademark way of seductively airbrushing background vocals before unleashing a thunderous siren call. Going through a medley of funk-infused hits from her days with Rufus that was capped by a dusky rendition of "Ain't Nobody," she turned out a version of "My Funny Valentine" that was as soulful as it was jazzy, transformed longing into poetry in "Through the Fire" and reached a crescendo with "I'm Every Woman," the feminist anthem that lures men to snap and shake in solidarity.

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