After he took his seat at the grand piano on the stage of Helzberg Hall, Randy Newman looked around the sleek, palatial room and growled, “What a dump.”
It was the first of many moments of sarcasm from a guy who can be as acerbic and sardonic as he can be poignant and romantic. Wednesday night in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, accompanied by the Kansas City Symphony with associate conductor Aram Demirjian, Newman was all of the above.
For two hours, not counting the 20-minute intermission, he delivered nearly two dozen songs that plumbed love, sex, despair, race, prejudice, poverty, slavery, hegemony. He connected those themes with plenty of sarcasm and wit, much of it self-deprecating.
He opened with “Birmingham,” the tale of a working-class man and loving husband, living the idyllic life with his wife and dog in the Deep South. It’s the lead track on “Good Ol’ Boys,” Newman’s portrait of life in the South and the racists and rednecks who inhabit it, including the man in the song. The Symphony accompanied him on that one, re-creating the recorded version, but it sat out the next one, “Short People,” his crude but funny view of intolerance.
And so the show went: Newman joined by the Symphony on some songs, going solo on others. Before “I Miss You,” he said, “I wrote this for my first wife while I was married to my second” and then sang it like a guy whose heart was as broken as the marriage he left behind.
“Love Story” gave the Symphony a chance to stretch out a bit, thanks to its many changes. He followed that with “Marie,” a devotional from a husband to the wife he knows he doesn’t deserve. As it did on “I Miss You,” the Symphony further extracted the beauty of the melody and the romance of the lyrics.
Newman is 71, and his voice these days often doesn’t find the notes it’s reaching for. His piano playing, too, has lost some shine. When bathed in the Symphony’s lush and precise orchestration, however, it all sounded lustrous, elevated to another plane.
At the end of the first set, Demirjian surrendered the baton to Newman, who conducted the Symphony through music from two of his film scores: “Toy Story” and “The Natural.” After the intermission, he did the same: “Maverick” and “Avalon.” He then returned to the grand piano and continued pulling songs from his ample catalog, some of them favorites, like “It’s Money That I Love,” and a new one called (presumably) “She Chose Me.”
There were a few bumps in the show, none more glaring than after he sang “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” Newman started the intro to “Real Emotional Girl,” and Demirjian shot him a look over his left shoulder while the musicians lurched toward their music stands and flipped through the sheet music. Newman stopped, apologized sheepishly, blamed it on “arrogance over confidence” and then played the intro to “Sail Away,” his sarcastic sugar-coating of slavery.
“Real Emotional Girl” was next and he wrung plenty of emotion out of it. There was lots of laughter in the crowd and onstage during “Political Science,” as if many were hearing it for the first time.
Before his encore, Newman said he didn’t really think Helzberg Hall was a dump. And he praised the Symphony and Demirjian lavishly. Then he played two of the loveliest songs he has ever written.
“Louisiana 1927” is about the Great Mississippi Flood and how it ravaged Louisiana, especially the poor. He finished with “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” his most-covered song. It’s a sad, yearning ballad about alienation and the need for compassion, and it brought the show to a fitting end.
Like the joke he cracked when he opened the show, when he sang “human kindness is overflowing,” he didn’t mean it.
Birmingham; Short People; The World Isn’t Fair; I Miss You; Love Story; Marie; The Great Nations of Europe; You Can Leave Your Hat On; I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It); music from “Toy Story” score; music from “The Natural” score. Intermission. Music from “Maverick” score; music from “Avalon” score; It’s Money That I Love; I Love to See You Smile; She Chose Me; You’ve Got a Friend in Me; Sail Away; Real Emotional Girl; Political Science; Louisiana 1927; Lonely at the Top; I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.