Young Artists of America wowed the sold-out crowd with classics from Show Boat for their annual fundraising gala at the beautiful Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club. The 85 high-school aged performers did not sound anything like high school musicians; they sang and played in the orchestra with technical superiority and an already well-honed musicality. Nevertheless, the focus of the evening was on education and development, which was so refreshing in this age of instant YouTube sensations. These are kids for whom craft is very important, doubtless led by the example of Artistic Director Rolando Sanz, an accomplished opera star in his own right, who auctioned off voice lessons along with the other prizes of the evening. The raffle and the gala raised money for tuition for the non-profit YAA program that provides opportunities to local youth to be mentored by professionals and to perform in dance, opera, theater, and more.
Show Boat was a strategic choice – a revolutionary show and a personal one for DC since it debuted in 1927 at the National Theatre here in town. Show Boat’s music was written by Jerome Kern with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Robert Russell Bennett orchestrated the piece for a concert setting. It was the first modern American musical – the first to blend catchy songs with a sophisticated story instead of the follies that dominated the stage before then. That these songs are still in our culture almost 100 years later is a testament to their quality, in addition to their historical significance, and the performers had great fun with them the whole night.
The CEO of The Music Center of Strathmore, Eliot Pfanstiehl, emceed the evening, painting a picture of life on a show boat and filling in the action between songs. Music Director and Conductor Kristofer Sanz lifted his baton to begin the music. The chorus stood in bright colors on the stage and a full orchestra sat before them.
The orchestra was featured on the “Overture” and “Misery theme.” Six guest artists joined the instrumentalists. Joseph Gatwood, Michael Mermagen, Monika Vasey, Ari Allal, and Frank Gulino all offered their time and their talent. One of the goals of YAA is to expose participants to working musicians and performers to help them explore every option open to them. The professionals seemed to get as much out of it as the students. Mermagen, especially, grinned through the entire concert behind his cello.
The chorus began with the beautiful and tricky “Cotton Blossom” and also sang as an ensemble on “The Sports of Gay Chicago.” They jumped up throughout the rest of the evening in support of the many soloists as well. Eitan Mazia and Sophia Anastasi sang a duet on “Where’s the Mate for Me?” and “Make Believe” Eitan has a Broadway sound already and a great sense of humor, so perfect for the character. Sophia has a sweet soprano and they matched well on their duet.
The guest mentor for the concert was V. Savoy McIlawain. He is a Washington native with an international career in opera. He tackled “Ol” Man River”and received a standing ovation. His rendition of this song was powerful, not only for his gorgeous voice, but for his nuanced interpretation. He never sacrificed the character for the sake of the sound.
Gillian Han, Maya Eaglin, and Chloe Malouf sang “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” and clearly had a lot of fun together. David Fisher and Marissa Diehl took the stage next for “You are Love.” Marissa has a beautiful voice and David played the lover well, soaking his singing with emotion. George Perry and Sarah Barker sang “Why Do I Love You” Sarah has a technically superior voice with a sweet vibrato on her soaring part and George matched her on this slow ballad, where there was nowhere to hide. Elizabeth Doerrman sang “Bill” in a powerful voice, a song made for belting. McIllwain returned for the finale with “Ol’ Man River,” joined by the cast.
Sometimes, not often, but sometimes you get to witness the beginning of something magical and that was the feeling throughout this night. These young performers are so talented, but more than that, they are willing to work with that talent and craft it into something much more. It was also just a really fun night, revisiting these classic songs with these superior performers.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Young Artists of America’s website.
DCMetroTheaterArts’ coverage of YAA.
Watch Highlights of Show Boat in Concert by Scott Selman from CYM Media: