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Vintage musicals aging well

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NEW YORK -- "Finally my mother can see something I've done," said opera singer Nathan Gunn, "that she actually likes."

The 37-year-old baritone was speaking of tonight's concert version of the pioneering musical "Show Boat," the centerpiece of a season-ending gala at Carnegie Hall, and of his appearances last month with the New York Philharmonic, playing Lancelot in "Camelot."

Then there was his recent performance for the U.S. Supreme Court, singing German lieder at a formal concert but at the justices' party . . . Lancelot's “If Ever I Would Leave You.”

The last time he performed vintage Broadway fare?

"I sang Curly in 'Oklahoma,' " Gunn said, "in high school."

There's a lot of Old Broadway spirit in the air here as the revival of "South Pacific" at Lincoln Center's remains one of the hottest tickets in town, while awaiting its anointment at this weekend's Tony Awards, and with the New York Philharmonic just staging a "Broadway's Greatest Showstoppers" night in addition to its "Camelot." Of course, concerts like that, or tonight's "Show Boat," are hardly whims of the moment -- they're scheduled years in advance. And isn't someone always reviving some old warhorse musical?

Present at the creation

Just don't tell 87-year-old Alice Hammerstein Mathias there isn't a special appreciation these days for shows like those of her lyricist father, Oscar Hammerstein II, who co-wrote both "South Pacific" (with composer Richard Rodgers) and "Show Boat" (with Jerome Kern). "There is something different happening," insists Mathias. "We're going back to the future."

She can attest to how tough it is to get tickets to the Beaumont's "South Pacific" featuring Brazilian opera star Paulo Szot as French planter ("Some Enchanted Evening") Emile DeBecque -- friends no longer pester her to get them tickets. "They stopped," she said, "because I've told them I can't."

Last week, she dropped by a rehearsal room near Broadway and 42nd Street to meet the cast of the one-night "Show Boat," which is expected to bring in close to $1 million for Carnegie Hall's artistic and education initiatives, with gala tickets going for up to $2,500. Mathias reminisced how as a little girl she attended the show's premiere in 1927, a time when Broadway productions almost invariably were song-and-dance reviews typified by its producer Florenz Ziegfeld's "Ziegfeld Follies." In "Show Boat," by contrast, the music revealed character and moved forward a cohesive story, one about racism, no less.

"My father was not an activist. He exposed things like that in a quiet way," said Mathias, who told the cast how she danced with Paul Robeson, for whom “Old Man River” reportedly was written, though he did not play Joe in that Broadway run -- he did it in London, then in the 1936 movie.

The cast for this concert "Show Boat" includes stars of three current Broadway musicals -- "Mary Poppins" (Gavin Lee), "Mamma Mia!" (Carolee Carmello) and "Spamalot" (Jonathan Hadary) -- along with an opera legend (Marilyn Horne), a dashing opera baritone (Gunn) and one sergeant first class, Alvy Powell, who plays Joe.

The burly Powell is best known for his 1,000-plus performances of George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" around the world, but he's still on active duty with the U.S. Army Chorus, with which he has soloed at the White House for three presidents. He has sung "Old Man River" at those gigs, but it's been a while since he's appeared in "Show Boat."

"Twenty-seven years ago," Powell said during a break in one rehearsal, "at the Harlequin Dinner Theatre in Washington, D.C., and also at a little theater in Waterville, Maine."

Though Powell has sung in Carnegie Hall once before, he was hardly at the front of the stage then. He was there with the Army Chorus in 1988 for the concert celebrating Irving Berlin's 100th birthday. "I reminded Miss Horne that . . . I covered her 'God Bless America' in the rehearsal the day that she didn't come," Powell said. "But we stood behind her at Carnegie Hall."

Gunn is in the cast, as roguish riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal, thanks to the production's musical director, Paul Gemignani, a veteran of 40 Broadway and London shows who won an Emmy for the telecast of a concert version of "South Pacific," with Reba McEntire, that was performed at Carnegie Hall in 2006 and at the Hollywood Bowl last summer. Gemignani is thrilled to see what's happened with the first full Broadway revival of that 60-year-old show.

"One would have thought it's too sentimental," he said. "Not at all. People crave that."

Gemignani noted approvingly that the other musical "you can't get a ticket to" these days is "In the Heights," a Latin-themed, rap-filled production running, of all places, at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. But he hopes there remains a place for "something that gives the person a chance to sing, any of the old shows, 'Oklahoma,' 'Carousel,' 'South Pacific,' or this show. My son is 26 and he never saw half of these."

Gunn, whose parents were flying in from South Bend, Ind., to see tonight's "Show Boat," said he too had never seen that or "Camelot." He did not rent the movie versions, either, so he could come to them with a fresh eye. He groped to figure out why his "Show Boat" character, Ravenal, woos young Magnolia Hawks with charm and song only to abandon her and their child. He considered a benign explanation -- that Ravenal might have thought she could not pursue her own career as a singer if she was married -- then "decided he's just a gambling addict."

Career path

Though his future is firmly in opera, Gunn does not look down on more popular fare, volunteering, "There are a few songs I'll pull out for parties," such as "They Call the Wind Mariah" or "I've Got the World on a String."

So would he consider doing such music on more than a random night? It's not a hypothetical question -- as he was rehearsing "Show Boat," Gunn was being pitched by Broadway producers eager to lure him on to the Great White Way, no doubt citing the success of Brazil's Szot, a strong favorite to take home a Tony this weekend. Gunn said only that their proposed show is "a retro thing again . . . a musical version of a movie made a long time ago."

But as an opera singer, he's booked through 2010, "and 2012 is getting there." Those are contracts, one for his debut with Los Angeles Opera next January, in "Die Zauberflote." And in opera, you know you're going to perform and be well paid. On Broadway, you rehearse for weeks, do previews for weeks more, then can run just for days -- or continue forever. And if that happens, he's stuck in New York, away from his wife and five kids in Champaign, Ill.

Then again, "it's totally fun to do music . . . audiences feel comfortable with." So . . . "if there was a way I could spend my summers singing a particular musical. . . ."

Or maybe, just maybe, they'll make another film of "Camelot," and without the first one's "cheesy" scenes of running around in fields. That's it -- Hollywood, give him a call.

If there's a new movie version, Gunn said, "put my name in there."

paul.lieberman@latimes.com

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