Concert review: '4U - A Symphonic Celebration of Prince' at Ohio Theatre

Scott Woods
More than two years after Prince's death, Questlove is here to help fans get through this thing called life. The Roots percussionist helped to curate the rock icon's music for an arrangement that was performed by a full symphony orchestra.

“4U - A Symphonic Celebration of Prince” makes much hay about being the first official presentation of Prince’s music in classical form, but remained conveniently cagey on its content. Turns out it wasn’t an unwarranted move.

Prince aficionado/drummer Questlove curated the sets and did some initial arrangement, but the heavy lifting was done by a small orchestra smothered by a smaller band, which was in turn smothered by a violinist/hype woman who apparently thought Tuesday’s Ohio Theatre show was a karaoke night. The band was mixed way higher than the orchestra, resulting in a muddy clash of palates. There were flashes of strong arrangement (“Computer Blue” and “The Beautiful Ones”) but the overall effect was a “Prince with the Pops” experience for a general audience neither invested in crate digging or classical music. Anyone swinging too far in either direction likely walked away underwhelmed.

For all the promotion about the show’s first half containing “deep cuts,” the set featured few of them. “All My Dreams” and “It Ain’t Over ’Til the Fat Lady Sings” are unreleased tracks, but did little to make a case for their inclusion save that they already had strings arranged by longtime Prince collaborator Clare Fischer. Pretty much everything else was a hit (“Controversy,” “1999”) or ripped from the Parade album, an already Fischer-heavy affair and a softball for an orchestra. The significantly shorter second half didn’t fare much better in terms of range, with Purple Rain being much of the menu. For a “journey through Prince’s catalog,” the entire night used songs from only seven albums out of a 50-album career.

Columbus is early in the tour and changes to the set list have already been made since its debut. Attempts to marry actual Prince vocals to live playing were largely abandoned, so the lone example of this was at the very end with “Purple Rain,” which worked. The entire production has the sheen of estate handling, loaded with safe bets and few risks. Issues ranging from the lack of a program, sparse merchandise, low-quality video production and a legally non-contentious song selection expose “4U” as an attempt to keep overhead low while rushing a product to market.

Ultimately, “4U” is something for the layperson to sit back and chomp Twizzlers to, and, at that level, it succeeds regardless of its flaws or agendas. By the end people were dancing and singing, and even offering clamorous applause during bows. This reaction owes more to the unquenchable thirst of Prince fans than it does to the show’s content, but I’d venture most people thought they’d gotten their money’s worth. It isn’t a show designed for superfans of Prince or classical music. Fortunately, there’s enough Prince to go around moving forward.