Top-notch performances float Annapolis Chorale production

`Show Boat' just keeps rolling along


February 16, 2007|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,Special to The Sun

The debut of Show Boat in 1927 changed the American musical by dealing with serious subjects such as racial tensions - including miscegenation laws and the fallout after a husband abandons his family.

Show Boat was also groundbreaking as the first American musical with plot-advancing songs - in this case, telling the stories of star-crossed couples against a backdrop of American history spanning the first four decades of the 20th century.

Composed by Jerome Kern with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, the music includes near-operatic arias, including "You Are Love," the compelling "Ol' Man River" anthem and the seductive "Can't Help Loving That Man," along with melodic love songs and catchy up-tempo tunes.

Notable Show Boat versions over the years include two classic films.

One in 1936 starred Irene Dunne as Magnolia and Allan Jones as Gaylord and featured Paul Robeson as Joe and Helen Morgan as Julie.

Another, in 1951, starred Kathryn Grayson as Magnolia with Howard Keel as Gaylord and Ava Gardner as Julie, with William Warfield as Joe.

A Canadian production in 1994 and another by Harold Prince in 1993 were both credited with restoring much of the piece's original power for a contemporary audience.

The Annapolis Chorale's production last Friday was noteworthy for the musical excellence of the full chorus and orchestra and of the talented soloists - and for the marked contrast between Acts 1 and 2.

Chorale director J. Ernest Green could not conduct Act 1; he was accompanying his 7-year-old daughter Ella to her school's father-daughter dance.

Although assistant conductor Philip Hale did a fine job, the chorus and orchestra suffered some balance problems.

When Green took the podium for Act 2, the score came alive, with a chorus that seemed fuller, brighter and livelier.

In this story of life along the Mississippi, Captain Andy pilots his showboat Cotton Blossom with its floating theater that stars Julie Laverne with dancers Ellie and Frank.

Living on the boat are Captain Andy's bossy wife, Parthy, and their daughter, Magnolia, who falls in love with a riverboat gambler, Gaylord Ravenal. Also on board are cook Queenie and her husband, stevedore Joe.

In Annapolis Chorale "Broadway in Concert" productions, there is little need for scenery or props - only appropriate, attractive costumes for the players. Well-chosen dialogue helps tell the story that is principally delivered through glorious music by orchestra, chorus and soloists.

Making his ninth consecutive appearance in the Chorale's Broadway series, Thomas Magette brought humor, sparkle and a fine singing voice to the role of Captain Andy. He conveyed a fatherly affection for Magnolia and a resigned willingness to placate Parthy, who was given plenty of sass and spunk by Eloise Ullman.

Two standouts making their Annapolis Chorale debut were bass-baritone Harvey Fort as Joe and 17-year-old Sharnae Wallace - a junior at Annapolis High School who delivered a fabulous Queenie.

Fort, who has several opera credits and works full time at the Federal Aviation Administration and part time teaching math at Anne Arundel Community College, started his "Ol' Man River" quietly and built it to high drama to become a show-stopper.

Contributing their acting and singing skills were Jason Buckwalter as Frank and Katie Hale as his wife, Ellie.

As the young lovers Magnolia and Gaylord, Karen Myers and Christopher Rhodovi were attractive, looked believable and sang well, especially when delivering "Make Believe." However, both were sometimes a bit wooden, with Rhodovi singing almost every note at full volume and lessening the emotional impact of the "You Are Love" duet.

Ashleigh Rabbitt was most impressive as the tragic Julie, the leading lady who is a victim of racial prejudice. This classically trained soprano delivered an unexpected emotional punch with her nuanced performances of "My Bill" and "Can't Help Loving That Man."

Green conjured up magic from the chorus and orchestra, particularly in the more engaged, even thrilling performance he coaxed from Rhodovi in the reprisal of "You Are Love" that soared to Puccini-like heights.

In a post-performance question-and-answer session, an audience member noted that Show Boat was last performed in Annapolis in 1974 at Summer Garden Theater and wondered why this classic American show isn't done more often.

Calling the show "complex and very sophisticated," Green thought that the show's difficulty, including its dominant themes, might be why.

Whatever the reason, we can be glad it was done so well last weekend.

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