In the lead-up to Valentine’s Day, The Portland Symphony Orchestra paid a visit to a rich source of romantic music for its latest PSO Pops! concert. Broadway musicals have long provided songs filled with the language of love and many of them warmed the Merrill Auditorium stage on Saturday night.

In a program he devised called Broadway Romance, guest conductor Ted Sperling assembled a collection of songs representing 16 shows, from classics to a few of a more recent vintage. Adding drama to that which was already contained within the songs, the selections were aligned to tell the story of a romance, from first date to full bloom.

Guest vocalists Betsy Wolfe and Santino Fontana, youthful veterans of stage and screen, applied their considerable theatrical gifts to bring Sperling’s story-telling concept to life in this highly entertaining program.

After an engaging opening by the PSO with Gershwin’s Overture to Girl Crazy, a primal source of American popular music, the singers took the stage separately at first. Fontana built anticipation with a leaning-forward take on “Something’s Coming” from “West Side Story.” Wolfe followed with the more reflective “The Man I Love,” another Gershwin classic.

The first of many humorous interludes followed as each performer suffered the anxiety of a first date – Fontana with “Tonight at Eight” and Wolfe with “Will He Like Me,” both tunes from the show “She Loves Me.” The two then joined each other on stage for “First Date/Last Night,” a piece highlighted by a wordless chorus that delightfully spoke volumes in a program chock full of verbalization.

Perhaps the pair’s finest duets came on three show-stopping classics. Their take on “If I Loved You” from “Carousel,” was one likely to stay in many audience members’ ears for days. “Come Rain or Come Shine,” backed by a particularly lush-sounding PSO, and “Somewhere (There’s a Place for Us)” also scored as major moments in the show. Among the more comical pieces, Wolfe impressed most listeners, including her singing partner, with a fast-paced “Not Getting Married” from Stephen Sondheim’s show “Company.” Her more serious capabilities, especially in the unhurried middle range of her voice, came through on “I Got Lost in His Arms” from “Annie Get Your Gun,” a piece that had her backed only by Sperling on piano

Fontana elicited some giggles courtesy of his take on Sondheim’s “Buddy’s Blues,” a piece that featured his rich tenor in conversation with himself as a falsetto-voiced love interest. “She Likes Basketball” also gave him an opportunity to bring even more show-biz energy to the wide Merrill stage.

Sperling added his own voice for a take on “The Begat,” a song with an old-time jazz feel that the PSO handled well. But his plaudits were mostly earned for putting together a fine program full of the sounds of love, Broadway-style.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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