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'Show Boat' vocals soar above all else
Mercury Opera Rochester's singing surpasses spoken drama, dancing, set.

Stuart Low, Staff writer

(June 3, 2007) - Even the wily riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal would agree: Mercury Opera Rochester won a steep bet with its stunningly cast production of Show Boat.

The 1927 musical about dockside romance and racial turmoil certainly poses stiff challenges. Its 65 performers must be equally surefooted on deck as singers, dancers and actors — a tall order for a two-year-old company. Friday's vocal fireworks could match any Broadway revival of this classic, though the spoken drama often remained mired in the Mississippi River mud.

Each of the starring roles was filled to perfection. As the love-struck Gaylord Ravenal, Louisiana-born singer Bray Wilkins delivered agile sighs and swells with a made-to-order dreamboat tenor. Hallie Silverston played his sweetheart Magnolia with dewy, ardent accents that recalled local nostalgia songstress Nancie Kennedy.

And Karen Holvik — Silverston's former teacher at the Eastman School of Music — dominated the show as Julie, the mixed-race entertainer who comes to grief in 1880s Mississippi. Holvik's lustrous soprano massaged the lyrics in all the right places, backed by quietly assured acting that kept her character believable without histrionics.

Local tenor Derrick Smith brought down the house twice with Ol' Man River, delivered in a beautifully rounded baritone that stood comparison with his Rochester forerunner, William Warfield. The performance was slightly undercut by Smith's phlegmatic stage presence — though he was hardly alone in his laidback demeanor.

This production had the virtues of a well-presented opera — not an emotionally charged musical about topics such as racial bias and failed marriages. The many spoken scenes seldom crackled with electricity. And the cautiously footloose dance numbers exuded a tepid gaiety rather than sassy pizzazz.

Stage director Barbara Montgomery and her crew, though, subtly accentuated the show's tortured dance between black and white folks. In a New Year's Eve scene, for instance, drunken Chicago partiers were politely served by black waiters.

Some of the borrowed sets worked better than others. The show boat Cotton Blossom looked like a Wild West saloon façade bathed in a pastel glow. But the sumptuous costumes in the well-paced crowd scenes drew attention away from the spare backdrops.

With its evergreen score by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, Show Boat heads a long line of Broadway shows about the camaraderie of show biz. That spirit was hard to miss Friday, as a barrage of sounds from the East End Nightlife Festival drifted to the Eastman Theatre entrance.

Yet after giving Show Boat a deafening ovation, few concertgoers seemed to notice the hullabaloo on their way out.

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