The dulcet tones of Jerome Kern’s overture to “Show Boat” wafted through the halls of Carnegie on Tuesday night, with those golden melodies — “Old Man River,” “Why Do I Love You?” “Make Believe,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” — pouring out over an appreciative audience. A streamlined rendition of the Kern-Hammerstein masterpiece followed, clocking in at slightly more than two hours and offering impressive moments from some fine performers in an evening that seemed to evaporate in the second act.
There was a time when concert-hall versions of Broadway classics were carefully assembled, with authenticity very much a keyword of the occasion. Not so, anymore; these events have become mere fund-raising galas, the most recent specimen a misconceived and miscast “Camelot” presented by the New York Philharmonic in May. Carnegie Hall’s “Show Boat” was infinitely better, although not a presentation fans of the piece were likely to embrace.
“Show Boat” presents a conundrum for those attempting to tackle it; the musical has been revised and rewritten again and again over the years, both by the authors and various hands working on posthumously produced productions.
The Carnegie folks seem to have settled on the version prepared by Oscar Hammerstein II in 1946, but with severe cuts and some odd musical choices. The great Robert Russell Bennett prepared three different “Show Boat” orchestrations, in 1927, 1946 and 1966. Musical director and conductor Paul Gemignani, who, like “Ol’ Man River,” just keeps rolling along, making exceptional music while making it appear effortless, seemed to be using the arguably inferior 1946 charts with a few from 1927 worked in.
Artistic control was placed in the hands of Francesca Zambello and Doug Wright, director and librettist of Broadway’s current “The Little Mermaid” (which argues against them as the likeliest pair for the chore). Zambello had an especially hard time working around the physical strictures of the oversized, 53-piece Orchestra of St. Luke’s; the actors seemed to spend much of their time traveling to the playing area on the apron from the wings (or, with respect to the chorus, from upstage bleachers). The large orchestra and wide space also wreaked havoc on the sound, with extended sections of the lyrics inaudible.
Stage magic was provided, however, by choreographer Robert Longbottom, who continually interwove eight dancers into the proceedings.
As usual, the principals were a mixture of the Broadway and opera worlds. Standout was Carolee Carmello as Julie. Her wrenching rendition of “Bill” generated a tidal wave of applause; even before that, though, she offered a delicious “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” complete with a winning example of the shuffle step. What’s more, her all-important miscegenation scene — in which she was aided by real-life husband Gregg Edelman as Steve — was riveting.
Jonathan Hadary was a close second as one of the most effective Cap’n Andys in memory, albeit with his big scenes deleted. The surprise from the opera side was Celena Shafer, who made a charming and beautifully voiced Magnolia.
Many in the audience expected Nathan Gunn’s Ravenal to top his recent Lancelot in the otherwise tarnished “Camelot.” He started out well with the meeting scene and “Make Believe,” but his first-act solo was cut, and the heart of his big number — the extended “wand’ring ne’er-do-well” verse to “You Are Love” — was missing as well. This left Gunn with little to do; he also suffered the worst of the recurring sound problems that marred the evening.
Alvy Powell’s Joe seemed to be grafted onto the proceedings, making that long trek from the wings time and again to sing a few snatches of “Ol’ Man River.” Powell performed the song well enough, despite choosing to avoid those climactic high notes at the end of his solo refrain. Alteouise deVaughn did well with her opportunities as Queenie, but her whittled-down scenes made it hard to demonstrate the warmth normally associated with the role. The same can be said for Becky Ann Baker as Parthy. Marilyn Horne, in the nonsinging cameo as the Lady on the Levee, received an extended entrance hand.
The evening was sparked occasionally by Gavin Lee (Bert in “Mary Poppins”) and Megan Sikora (the producer’s daughter in “Curtains”) as the dance team of Frank and Ellie. Somewhat shockingly, at least to purists, Zambello and Wright took “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” — perhaps the brightest soubrette solo in the Broadway repertoire — and turned it into a mundane duet. This was no doubt done to give Lee something to dance to, as they cut what would otherwise have been his first-act number. And considering Zambello carefully segregated her choruses, it seemed bizarre for the song to be backed by the African-American girls.
Late in the proceedings, Zambello and Wright included a scene taking place at the Ziegfeld Follies, which would presumably have surprised Kern, Hammerstein and Ziegfeld himself (the original producer of “Show Boat”). By this point, though, the Carnegie presentation of the landmark musical had been reduced to a skeletal string of reprises of great songs.