Seth MacFarlane proved beyond doubt to the large crowd he drew Friday night that he is far more than just the mastermind behind the ever-popular Family Guy, but a gifted singer and charismatic performer.  As a longtime fan of the show, I must say (confess?) it was pretty thrilling to see him in person although there was minimal acknowledgement of his prior successes in this two-and-a-half hour marathon celebrating the Great American Songbook.  Before taking a job in animation, MacFarlane had considered a graduate program in musical theater at the Boston Conservatory, and music continues to be an integral part of Family Guy with its use of orchestra, frequent songs, and perhaps most memorably, the guest appearance of Frank Sinatra, Jr. in one of the show’s early seasons.

The Ravinia Festival Orchestra – which counts among its ranks several members of the Chicago Symphony – supported MacFarlane with very fine playing, and he often seemed to be standing in awe of what this ensemble was capable. Conductor Joel McNeely had a natural feel for the repertoire, and is a seasoned collaborator with MacFarlane having produced both his albums and written scores for American Dad! and the 2014 film A Million Ways to Die in the West.

Despite the plethora of pop culture references in every Family Guy episode, MacFarlane’s musical tastes are decidedly old-fashioned. It’s really quite admirable the way he uses his popular appeal to introduce the current generation to standards of the past – indeed, the average age of the audience was much younger than one would expect for a performance of this genre. The concert was as much a celebration of American song and MacFarlane’s vocal prowess as of the orchestra itself and all things acoustic. The arrangements (many by the gifted Nelson Riddle) elicited the full range of colors from the orchestra, something one doesn’t readily associate with popular music in an era where, as MacFarlane put it, music has become “two Swedish guys at a computer”.

For someone who studied with Frank Sinatra’s vocal coaches and recorded his first album using the same microphone Sinatra had once used, it was only fitting for MacFarlane to open with It Happened in Monterey, a song made famous by Sinatra. His rich baritone started off a bit coarse, but quickly smoothed out as the performance went underway. As brief intermezzi between songs (or “charts” as he called them, spoken like a true crooner), he treated the audience to a blend of informative commentary and his signature witty comedy. 

Ol' Man River showed MacFarlane’s more contemplative side, augmented by a particularly affecting Riddle arrangement. The clever and comical lyrics of When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love were sharply delivered with MacFarlane’s crystal clear diction. You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me was heightened by the use of the celesta, and Ill Wind featured notable trumpet and saxophone solos. The highlight of the first half came right before intermission (which MacFarlane graciously reminded the audience was an opportune time to “go into your car and fart” – was anyone really expecting an evening with Seth MacFarlane to be devoid of sophomoric humor?) with the ballad Soliloquy from Carousel, presented with a symphonic scope and grandeur.

He returned to the stage with Granada, its declamatory opening giving way to a jaunty swing. I was especially taken by the richness of the strings in I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes). The talented actress and singer Liz Gillies joined MacFarlane for a series of duets, including Are We Dancing? and Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love. While she wasn’t quite a match for Seth’s wit during the banter between songs, their chemistry together while singing was palpable. There was genuinely moving melancholy in Rain as well as When You Become a Man, the latter marked by lush, almost Rachmaninov-like melodies.

Inevitably, encores were demanded and MacFarlane eagerly obliged, beginning with a rousing rendition of Guys and Dolls from the eponymous 1950 musical. Gillies was brought back out for an energetic performance of the apt Chicago Style to the delight of the crowd. MacFarlane closed with another Sinatra tune, One For My Baby (And One More For The Road), at last indulging in what most of the audience had been waiting for (this writer emphatically included) as he sang in the voices of the characters from Family Guy. A memorable evening from a very talented, multi-faceted entertainer.

****1