Jackie Evancho sings at the Mann Center

Jackie Evancho , 12, performs Saturday at the Mann Center.
Jackie Evancho , 12, performs Saturday at the Mann Center.
Posted: August 24, 2012

"I'VE LOVED 'The Lion King' since I was little. Well, littler," jokes Jackie Evancho as the introduction to "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" in her new concert extravaganza.

Evancho will debut the official U.S. live stage concert "Songs from the Silver Screen" at the Mann Center on Saturday. On Sept. 16, a previously taped "Music from the Movies" will air (in truncated form with pledge breaks) on WHYY-TV 12 at 5 p.m. Evancho's concert is quite the lush and lyrical production, starring one of contemporary music's most curious and intriguing success stories.

Close your eyes and just listen. You hear the pure, sweet, dulcet soprano tones of a mature, pop-operatic angel - trilling away on everything from the "Titanic"-size "My Heart Will Go On" to the spun-sugar "Willy Wonka" confection "Pure Imagination."

Then open those eyes wide to be confronted with the visage of a sweet little 12-year-old girl dressed up like Cinderella for the ball. And one who immediately shuts off the poise and seriousness, acts like a gawky, squinty-eyed and smiling tween whenever she's not singing.

"I do get nervous before I go onstage," Evancho has allowed. "When that happens I say to myself, 'Jackie, you can do this!' and then I say a little prayer."

Jacqueline Marie Evancho started singing around the house in Pittsburgh, "surprising my mom," when she was a mere sprite of 7-going-on-8. She'd been inspired by exposure to the film version of "The Phantom of the Opera." "Music of the Night" is the show tune she likes singing most from that Andrew Lloyd Webber score, "even though it's a 'Phantom' song."

After winning a preliminary YouTube-hosted contest, "America's Got Talent" invited Evancho on to compete. The then-10-year-old immediately wowed judges (especially Howie Mandel and Piers Morgan), while some disbelieving viewers argued she must be lip-synching. Not so, she'd later demo with some impromptu singing. But clearly the girl's smart microphone-handling skills and a tad of vocal processing have always helped to warm and "mature" her resonant lower register.

Although ultimately coming in second on the TV talent competition to Michael Grimm (many thought she was "robbed"), Evancho has clearly been redeemed and rewarded on a worldwide scale. With three of the four best-selling crossover albums (two of them holiday-themed) bearing her name, Billboard anointed Evancho the most popular classical-album artist of 2011. She's also become a favorite at the White House, with Japan's royal family (the girl's just back from some more Japan shows) and even with the Politburo in Russia. Oh, and she's the youngest talent to ever earn a solo concert at Lincoln Center.

Although vocal experts here at Curtis Institute of Music passed on the chance to critique Evancho's talent ("We only talk about our own," said a spokesperson), experts in her hometown have by and large been quite positive about the singer's gifts. Pittsburgh Opera general director Christopher Hahn finds her performances of arias such as "O mio babbino caro" to be "sweetly compelling." Claudia Benack, assistant professor of music theater at Carnegie Mellon University, said that Evancho "has an unusually adult feel for the repertoire. . . . She sings to the important part of the phrase and then backs off. That's instinctual. She takes breaths sometimes where an adult would not, but that's just because she's young and little."

Previewing her new "Great Performances" PBS special, this music guy thought Evancho was most comfortable and in her element singing about the romantic love she's yet to know firsthand but dreaming about - with her winsome imagination of "Some Enchanted Evening" (from "South Pacific") and her poignant vow, "When I fall in love, it will be forever, or I'll never fall in love." She also connects well with "Reflection" from "Mulan" - a "song about being true to yourself, just being who you are," she explained.

Mainly because Robert Redford asked, Evancho recently took a part in the Redford-starring and -directed political thriller, "The Company You Keep," playing his daughter. "A week after he asked, I was on set shooting. It happened very fast."

Still, she foresees her future as mostly singing and recording. "I don't think I want to act full time."

Increasingly, Evancho is touring the world with her parents and now her "special guest" singing brother Jacob in tow, while keeping up with studies via cyber-schooling. When she can, Evancho retreats to Pittsburgh and life as a "normal" 12-year-old - "playing with friends, jumping on a trampoline, sewing and playing with pets - everything a little girl would do."

Mann Center for the Performing Arts, 52nd and Parkside Avenue, 8 p.m. Saturday, $99.50, $75, $65, $45 (balcony), 215-893-1999, manncenter.org.

Contact Jonathan Takiff at takiffj@phillynews.com or 215-854-5960. Read his blog at philly.com/GizmoGuy.

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