The Island Community Chorus delivered as promised with its weekend program, The Choir Takes the Stage. Audiences at the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center were treated to selections from two Verdi operas, a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, and eight musicals from either Broadway or Hollywood.
Some of the musicals were from the classic pre-war tradition that brought together elements of the classical canon with jazz and vernacular traditions to modernize a show-business style. After the war, the so-called Great American Songbook laid the groundwork for popular music that was not necessarily associated with the stage.
The community chorus, under the direction of Peter Boak, began its Sunday performance with That’s Entertainment from the 1953 film The Band Wagon with Fred Astaire, which master of ceremonies Kenny Romero referred to as “one of show business’s signature songs.”
But this was a mere warm-up for the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar), written in 1841.
“It is like a national anthem in Italy,” Mr. Romero assured the large audience. “It’s performed and listened to with the utmost reverence.”
Introduced with rolling minor key piano figures by accompanist Garrett Brown, the song moved to a waltz rhythm, rising and falling with the sorrows and hopes of the slaves. The sopranos truly soared, rising above the rest of the chorus to convey pathos in their lilting Italian.
Brindisi, from Verdi’s later and better known La Traviata, featured Molly Conole and David Behnke as soloists. The soprano and tenor recreated the budding romance between Violetta and Alfredo with the full chorus endorsing it behind them.
The Fats Waller song Ain’t Misbehavin’ from 1929 introduced the African-American tradition into the evening’s proceedings. Suddenly the piano was syncopated, and the chorus came dangerously close to swinging. Dorian Lopes was the featured soloist, singing Andy Razaf’s lyrics, first heard in the 1943 film Stormy Weather.
The Gershwins’ Summertime draws from the Negro spiritual tradition rather than jazz, and the call and response structure of the song allowed the chorus to inject some drama into their performance. Walk Him Up the Stairs, from Purlie, a 1961 Ossie Davis play that became a musical in 1970, opened with humming and ended with an “amen,” and included much call and response. By their body language you could see the chorus was enjoying themselves. The song is punchy and allows each section of the group to be heard distinctly.
Ya Got Trouble, from The Music Man is, in contrast, from the John Philip Sousa tradition, and soloist Buck Reidy’s delivery of the tongue-twister lyrics had the color and enthusiasm of a carnival barker.
Sunday, from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George, is inspired by Seurat’s pointillist painting, Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte. The chorus’s dreamy delivery transported the audience to the River Seine drifting past the 19th century bathers.
Soloist Jenny Friedman provided the emotional high point of the evening with her rendition of Sleepy Man from The Robber Bridegroom, a 1975 Broadway musical by Alfred Uhry and Robert Waldman. She had perfect control of her vibrato and sang with a relaxed power that conveyed real emotion. Mr. Boak seemed particularly pleased.
To conclude the show, Garrett Brown was joined by Wesley Brown on the piano for Gilbert and Sullivan’s, Dance a Cachuca. It was an appropriately silly moment after Friedman’s tour de force and allowed the entire chorus to put their voices together again in sprightly ¾ time.
The Island Community Chorus holds its next show in the Oak Bluffs Tabernacle on July 1.