Show Boat

 

An American Masterpiece Gets a Full Production in San Francisco

A-Show BoatIf you are to purchase only one more DVD this year, make it “Show Boat” on the EuroArts label! Having seen but forgotten the details of the telecast of this monumental musical by the Paper Mill Playhouse many years ago, I had only the two film versions to go by and the complete EMI recording on CDs.

It is said that when the opening night performance ended in 1927, the audience was stunned. But after reading the reviews, the public lined up to see this totally new concept in musicals that had a serious plot, race relations, racial epithets never spoken in a Broadway musical before, and even a hero who deserts his family.

IMG_20150726_0001_NEWBut now the San Francisco Opera has videoed its recent production of “Show Boat,” with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and music by Jerome Kern. This is the video closest to the original 1927 version, except for some (welcome) cutting in the dialogue. As conductor John DeMain explains in a brief interview, the original dialogue revealed too much of what the following song would do. And he reinstated two songs that I have never heard except on the CD set.

Yes, most of us can name “Ol’ man river,” “Bill,” “Can’t help lovin’ dat man of mine,” “You are love,” “Make believe,” and even “Life upon the wicked stage.” But you will be as surprised as I was with the songs that are never included in “highlight” recordings nor done in the films.

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Patricia Racette as Julie, the role created by Helen Morgan

The cast is a strong one with Heidi Stober (Magnolia), Michael Todd Simpson (Gaylord), Bill Irwin (Captain Andy), Morris Robinson (Joe), Angela Renee (Queenie), Kirsten Wyatt (Ellie May), and John Bolton (Frank). A special treat is Patricia Racette, seen on the Metropolitan Opera Stage, as Julie. Harriet Harris, in the speaking part of Parthy, is too shrill in her dialogue; and Wyatt’s squeaky voice becomes tiresome at times.

The scenery is not meant to be realistic and this helps the many scene changes considerably. The choreography under Michele Lynch is fabulous, the chorus work under Ian Robertson is excellent, and the entire production is a credit to director Francesca Zambello. My only real complaint is that Gaylord does not get a single gray hair over all the years. Oh, well.

raw_file_urlGood for EuroArts for giving subtitles to both lyrics and dialogue. The entire 144 minutes of the production are on a single DVD, while a second disc holds a tiny 33 minutes of interviews. But for once, they are worthwhile. After all, “Show Boat” is not your run of the mill musical.

 

 

 

 

 

“Cabaret Girl” Sparkles in New Recording

1922 Kern Musical Sparkles in New Recording

   A-OLO-Cabaret GirlThere was once a form of entertainment called the Musical Comedy that actually had both delightful music and a good deal of comedy. Of course, the plots were bubble headed and served mainly as a peg on which to hang the songs. One of the masters of the genre was Jerome Kern, a disciple of Victor Herbert, whose influence on Kern is very obvious in his earlier works.

Of course, “Show Boat” dared to introduce a serious plot into the mix and prepared the ground for “Pal Joey,” “South Pacific,” and later much of what passes for musicals today. But back in 1922, musicals like Kern’s “The Cabaret Girl” were much in vogue. Most have deservedly vanished, but with Kern composing the music and P.G. Wodehouse and George Grossmith working on dialogue and lyrics, the show was heads above most of the others.

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Jerome Kern

Now cut into the 21st century. The Ohio Light Opera has been producing and recording on CDs a good many American and European operettas, with considerable success, most of which I have reviewed in my columns. Now with “The Cabaret Girl” on the Albany label, they have what I consider one of their finer efforts. Since the recording and program notes include all the dialogue, I will pass over the silly plot.

What is most impressive is that just about every song makes one feel good! The comedy songs find their sources in past operettas (Gilbert and Sullivan’s influence is most apparent) as well as vaudeville routines, in particular those of Gallagher and Shean.

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Two of the original cast

Conductor Michael Borowitz brings sparkle to a score that demands it; and even the dialogue flows a little faster than it does in some of the past OLO recordings. Compliments to the leads, among whom are Lindsay O’Neil, Stefan Gordon, Julie Wright, Steven Daigle, and too many others to list here.

The running time of the two CDs is 114 minutes, and for once I wish it could have been longer!

So for lovers of old time songs, students of the American musical theatre, and all who want to revel in things as they used to be—this is a definite Grabbit!

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Scenes from the OLO production (2008)

A Victor Herbert Smash That Failed

A-OLO-Dream CityA Victor Herbert Smash That Failed

When the great vaudeville team of Weber and Fields broke up, Joe Weber wanted to create and star in something completely different. With a book and lyrics by Edgar Smith, “Dream City & The Magic Knight” came to be, and none other than Victor Herbert was asked to compose the score. It opened in 1906 to great critical acclaim…and then fell into total oblivion. What happened?

Jump to the present. The Ohio Light Opera Company, known for its complete CD recordings of Gilbert & Sullivan and other operettas, now and then resurrects an old Broadway musical. It has recorded a version of this “lost” work on the Troy label. The artistic director, Steven Daigle, explains briefly in the program notes that he has restored a lot of the original show and made several changes.

The show is in two parts or “puffs.” The first tells the story (with resemblance to “Coconuts” and “The Music Man”) of how J. Bilkington Holmes (Nathan Brian) convinces Mr. Dinglebender (Daniel Neer) to sell his farm out on Malaria City, Long Island, NY  to make way for Dream City. Among the other are Mrs. Dinglebender (Julie Wright Costa), Nancy (Natalie Ballenger), Amanda (Alexa Devlin), and  Seth (Andrew Maughan).

And special mention for the cast of the opera sequence: Elsa (Emily Nelson), Lohengrin (Clark Sturdevant), Ortrud (Julie Wright Costa), Frederick (Adam Smerud), and King (Ted Christopher). Nancy’s imitations of some famous vaudeville stars of the day have little meaning to listeners today; but the original audience loved them.

The second “puff” takes place in the newly built Dream City. Dinglebender is dismayed that he must sit through a very long opera by Wagner called “The Magic Knight.” This spoof of “Lohengrin” takes 30 minutes of playing time—and, alas, is not very funny today, even those familiar with the opera. The denouement of the show is too silly…and I won’t reveal it here.

Although half the running time of the first puff is given to dialogue, the tuneful Herbert songs, especially a ragtime number in the second puff, make it all worthwhile. The critics raved about it when it opened; but Weber tried to bilk Herbert out of his profits, and …you can read about that in the program notes.

The OLO cast is livelier than I have ever heard them, reading the corny dialogue with conviction, if with somewhat slipping accents now and then.  Steven Byess seems to be having a grand time conducting and it is infectious. This recording is a valuable addition to the collections of those who love the old musicals that paved the way for Gershwin, Kern, and Rodgers.

 

 

 

Bloomer Girl

A Shortened “Bloomer Girl” is Restored from 1956 TVA-VAI-Bloomer Girl

   A most interesting addition to the series of vintage televised musicals on VAI DVDs is “Bloomer Girl.” With a score by Harold Arlen and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg (the team that gave us “The Wizard of Oz” score in 1939), this 1944 tale of Dolly Bloomer and her Bloomer Girls’ fight for women’s rights had a respectable run of 654 performances and shared its plot and theme with the rights of slaves (in the 1861 setting of the play) and of all humans in general.

The choreography of Agnes de Mille, especially her Civil War Ballet, added much to the show. And not only is de Mille the choreographer for the 1956 “Alcoa Hour,” but many of her original dancers were recalled to action. The first dance is a bit too 1944-de Mille-cute; but that is the point of reviving old shows in the spirit of their originals.

Of course, the 90-minute format allows only 76 minutes for “Bloomer Girl,” but what remains is top notch.

The lovers Jeff and Evelina are sung by Keith Anders and Barbara Cook (who was still going strong, as a New York Times featured article of 10-23-12 proclaims). Carmen Mathews plays Dolly Bloomer and Paul Ford is…well, Paul Ford as the blustering father of the Applegate Girls. Rawn Spearman as the slave Pompey has a pleasing voice and David Aiken as the auctioneer has a powerful one.

The studio set is large enough to give a convincing main part of a small Northern town called Cicero Falls, while the chorus work is quite good. This abridged edition of “Bloomer Girl” belongs in any collection next to the VAI DVDs of “Kiss Me, Kate,” “Dearest Enemy,” “A Connecticut Yankee,” “The Chocolate Solider,” “The Yeomen of the Guard,” “Naughty Marietta,” and “The Mikado” (with Groucho Marx in the lead.)

As is the case with the other sets, “Bloomer Girl” was originally telecast in color, but only the black-and-white kinescope remains.

Thank you again, VAI for this  treat!

Roberta

A Fashionable “Roberta” is Now on CD

A-Roberta   Gershwin was genius of American composers of popular music, Berlin was the most prolific. Jerome Kern comes in third (I believe), with one foot in the European operetta tradition and the other in the Broadway musical. His 1933 musical “Roberta” is a good example. It ran 295 performances and was made into film versions in 1935 with the same title but with changes and in 1952 as “Lovely to Look At” with even more changes. While there are several recordings of excerpts from “Roberta,” New World Records has released a two-CD set that tries to get as close to the original version as possible.

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Jerome Kern

The problem stems from all the usual changes that were made after opening night. The popular “Lovely to Look At” was added to the 1935 film, but many people believe (as I did for many a year) that this song was always in the show. Also, “Don’t Ask Me Not to Sing,” written for and dropped from “The Three Sisters,” was added to “Roberta,” because it fit Bob Hope’s style. (Even several of his ad libs were added to the dialogue.) And this is only part of the problem of faithful restoration of a vintage musical.

As for the recording itself, it has just enough dialogue to keep continuity of plot, all the dialogue that is underscored (and occasionally nearly drowned out by the music), and all of the songs that started as or became part of the original run. Several additional songs and variant versions are kept as bonus tracks. The Orchestra of Ireland is conducted by Rob Berman.

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Kim Criswell

The lead singers are Annalene Beechy, Kim Criswell, Patrick Cummings, Jason Graaf, and Diana Montague. The mostly young-sounding voices are appropriate to the corny scenario in the dialogue and in the vocals. The plot, in brief, is about the passing of the firm, Gowns by Roberta, to a young man and the show he creates to sell the line. The actual show is left to the listeners’ imaginations on a CD but the music is both lovely in spots and uses popular songs of the day in others.

The two big songs show Kern at his best. “Yesterdays” could be transferred to an operetta, while “Smoke gets in your eyes” has a melody that could be in an operetta but vernacular lyrics that place it firmly on Broadway. Much of the score is jazzy, which is pure Broadway; so classifying “Roberta” is not easy. But highly recommending this set is very easy!

One Touch of Venus

A Vintage TV Version of a Rarely Done Musical

A-VAI-One Touch of VenusAfter an initial run of 567 performances in 1943, “One Touch of Venus” more or less faded into semi-obscurity. With a score by Kurt Weill, a book by S.J. Perelman and Ogden Nash, and lyrics by Nash, it tells the tale of a statue of the goddess Venus coming to life and falling in love with a barber when he jokingly slips a ring around her finger.

Other than for “Speak low,” I was utterly unfamiliar with this show until dear old VAI added it to its DVD collection of televised Broadway musicals from the 1950s; and it represents the only fairly complete video version of “One Touch of Venus” to date. (The 1948 film with Ava Gardner keeps very few of the original songs, while this 1955 telecast keeps 10 of them plus two ballet sequences—and all in 73 minutes.) I read that bits of dialogue have been updated to 1955, but on the whole, this performance is a faithful abridgement of the original production.

In the role created by Mary Martin, Janet Blair makes a lovely Venus with a singing voice not heard very much, if at all, in her films. George Gaynes as Whitelaw Savory is a wooden actor but not a bad vocalist, while the nerdy barber Rodney Hatch is more than adequately played by Russell Nype.

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Candy is dandy but Nash wrote the lyrics

Others in the cast are two comic figures Taxi Black and Stanley (Mort Marshall and Iggie Wolfington), Hatch’s bad tempered fiancée Gloria (Mildred Trares), and Whitelaw’s faithful secretary Molly (Laurel Shelby). No, none of these names, other than Blair’s, are familiar to me—and I was an ardent TV viewer back then. But these VAI restorations are living history as well as superior entertainment.

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Kurt Weill

Now truth to tell, I was never much of an admirer of Weill’s music, and I don’t think much of his score for this show (“Speak low” excepted). But Nash’s lyrics are clever and often intelligent (this was his only shot at a Broadway musical), and the book he created with Perelman is amusing at best without being believable at any moment.

The picture on this VAI DVD is quite good and a bonus feature shows the original commercials—if that is one’s idea of a good time.

Other musicals in this VAI series are “Kiss Me Kate,” “A Connecticut Yankee,” “Dearest Enemy,” and “Bloomer Girl.” See www.vaimusic.com for a complete list.

Dearest Enemy

“Dearest Enemy””Dearest Enemy” Retells Revolutionary Legend

A-VAI-Dearest Enemy

My deep thanks  yet again to Video Artists International (VAI) for preserving on DVD musical comedies that were seen on television back in the 1950s. Since they remain in their catalogue, I should repeat my original reviews at least once a year for the sake of new readers.

Looking at the VAI website, I see that there is Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate” from 1958, historically as well as entertainingly important thanks to Alfred Drake and Patricia Morrison in their original roles. There is Rodgers and Hart’s “A Connecticut Yankee” from 1955 with Eddie Albert and Janet Blair. This was “live” television, mistakes and all. My favorite is the time when a knight’s beaver kept falling over his eyes and he could barely open it on the third closing. I have been reporting on new entries in this series as they appear.

The most recent entries form a neat contrast to how the originals were handled. First of all, each show was allowed 77 minutes for the musical itself and a good deal of cutting had to be made. That is acceptable. Second, the picture and sound are obviously 1950-ish, far from the state of the art features of today’s technology. That adds to the charm of watching these videos.

download (2)“Dearest Enemy” is a 1925 early effort by Rodgers and Hart that contained only one song that outlasted the original run, “Here in your arms,” but the rest of the score is by no means inferior to most musicals of the times; and Larry Hart’s clever rhymes show the promise of even cleverer ones to come. It was shown in 1955.

 

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Cornelia Otis Skinner in post-Colonial days

The cast has Cornelia Otis Skinner as Mrs. Murray, who became a legend when she delayed General Howe from surprising George Washington by throwing a party; and Anne Jeffrey as Betsy, who distracted his second in command (played by Robert Sterling). Cyril Ritchard steals most of his scenes as a jolly and prancing Howe. The party is history, the rest is Broadway.

It is helpful that Jeffrey’s operatic voice was nicely matched by Sterling, whose voice is strong enough to keep up with hers.

From what I could research, this television version seems very faithful to the original play, except (I suspect) for the framing device of having Howe and three other generals look back years later at how a bunch of lovely colonists lost the war for Britain.

And of course one can see the future hit tunes of Rodgers and Hart developing in this early collaboration, although it is still a far cry from their tradition-breaking “Pal Joey.”