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Cane, Conjurers, and Cake Walks

Atlas Performing Arts Center
02/20/2010 -  & February 21m, 26, 27, 28m*, March 5, 6, 7m
Scott Joplin: Treemonisha
LC Harden (Zodzetrick), Murvyn T Cannaday II (Remus), Marilyn Moore (Monisha), Darin Ellis (Andy), Darryl Winston (Ned), Shana Powell (Lucy), JoAnna Ford (Treemonisha), Doug Bowles (Parson Alltalk), Randhal Lindgren (Simon), John Dellaporta (Luddud), Michael Gallo (Cephus)
Orchestra, Chorus, and Dance Ensemble of the Washington Savoyards, Marvin Mills (Music Director), T. J. Anderson (Orchestrator)
Pauline Grossman (Choreographer), Michael J. Bobbitt (Stage Director), Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden (Scenic Designer), Eleanor Dicks (Costume Designer), Dan Covey (Lighting Designer)

J. Ford, M. Cannaday II (© Washington Savoyards)

American “Ragtime” composer Scott Joplin remains known primarily for his delightfully rhythmic and melodic piano rags. The Entertainer, a rag composed by Joplin in 1902 was used in the soundtrack of the 1973 Hollywood film The Sting, which starred Paul Newman and Robert Redford. This adaptation of The Entertainer Rag by composer/conductor Marvin Hamlisch became so popular it climbed to a number three position on the Pop Charts of 1974.

The opera Treemonisha was composed by Joplin in 1911. Unfortunately, it was never produced in Joplin’s lifetime. In fact, Joplin had to pay to have the opera published. After the passage of sixty-some years, the orchestrations were eventually lost. Sometime in the early 1970’s the last remaining piano vocal score of Treemonisha was presented by American composer William Bolcom to T. J. Anderson, who orchestrated the work as it is heard today. It was given its first performance in Atlanta, Georgia on January 28, 1972, in a production led by conductor Robert Shaw and stage director/choreographer Katherine Dunham, and featured singers Alpha Floyd, Seth McCoy, Simon Estes, Laura English, and Louise Parker.

I would not call it a great work, but it is an important work in the history of American opera, and it makes for an entertaining presentation in the theater. Its usage of an overture, recitatives, arias, choruses, ensembles, and dances bear the influences of classical 19th century European opera. However its assimilation of the Negro experience and American musical culture give it unusual distinction and originality.

The story and libretto are completely from Scott Joplin’s own imagination. The action takes place in the “Deep South” just after the American Civil War, and concerns an uneducated and superstitious Black community of Sugar Cane harvesters, who are being scammed by the local witch doctors and conjurers into buying amulets, spells, good luck potions, and the like for protection from the Devil and from evil spirits. A young woman, Treemonisha, is the only member of the community to have had an education, and she admonishes her family and friends for being intimidated and “taken in” by the voodoo of the conjurers. For her “unmasking” the conjurers she is abducted by the witch doctors and is about to be thrown into a snake pit, when she is rescued by her beau Remus, who arrives dressed as a devil and frightens the conjurers away. The opera ends with general rejoicing and a cake walking shuffle entitled “A Real Slow Drag”. This is perhaps the most well known number in the score. As I said, it is not a great work, but, as with any opera, it is a pretense for some wonderful music and dance.

As we stand on the eve of the 100th anniversary of this work, there could not be a more appropriate time for a revival of Treemonisha than now. The Washington Savoyards must be applauded for their vision and efforts in this revival. The production is colorful and energetic. It is distinguished by fine soloists, excellent chorus ensembles, rousing choreography, imaginative sets and costumes, and atmospheric lighting. It is also marred however by poor orchestral playing, and a bad directorial concept. Considering that the orchestral scoring is neither difficult, nor particularly demanding, it was distressing to hear such mediocre playing from the pit. It seemed to be a combination of bad players and lack of rehearsal, since poor intonation, slopppy rhythm, bad ensemble, and just plain wrong notes were the standard of the performance. Just as disconcerting was the ridiculous concept of director Michael J. Bobbitt. His “political correctness” was appalling. The idea of a racially mixed community of sugar cane workers in the “Deep South” is simply not believable, and it robs the work of its integrity and singular insight on the “Black Experience.” A professor at Howard University who sat next to me was particularly outraged, calling the production a “train wreck at an intersection” (A reference to the American Arts Festival INTERSECTIONS, of which Treemonisha is one of the productions. This immediately calls to mind the fact that the George Gershwin Family Estate expressly forbids any performances of Porgy and Bess with other than Negro artists on stage. Poor Joplin has no one to defend him or his intentions. It is indeed unfortunate that the Washington Savoyards do not have an Artistic Director who might have overridden the wrong-headed self indulgences of director Bobbitt.

Onstage however, racial mixture aside, the performers were mostly excellent. JoAnna Ford was charming and convincing in the title role of Treemonisha. Her lovely light soprano voice was ideal in this role. Her boyfriend Remus, strongly portrayed by tenor Murvyn T. Cannaday II, was somewhat undone by a voice that seemed to crack on every other note. LC Harden was slick and oily as the evil and deceptive conjurer Zodzetrick. His role had character aspects that seemed to foreshadow Gershwin’s Sportin’ Life (the drug dealing pimp of Porgy and Bess). The other three conjurers, Simon, Luddud, and Cephus were also given highly detailed characterizations by Randhal Lindgren, John Dellaporta, and Michael Gallo. They were shamefully villainous in their kidnapping and torture of Treemonisha. Shana Powell and Darin Ellis as Treemonisha’s friends Lucy and Andy were equally hilarious in their broadly conceived portrayals. The well-know Washington tenor Doug Bowles was particularly affecting in the brief but imposing role of Parson Alltalk. He was a veritable combination of every rural or TV evangelist.

Several notches above the rest of the principals in vocal superiority and stage savvy were soprano Marilyn Moore and bass-baritone Darryl Winston as Treemonisha’s parents Monisha and Ned. They could have held their own on the stage of any major opera house. Ms. Moore was riveting in all that she sang, and her singing packed an emotional wallop and displayed a lot of color. Mr. Winston’s Wagnerian voice recalled the style and technique of Herbert Janssen. His comic timing, self assurance, and authentic “Black Slapstick” style embodied the antics of Willie Best and Ethel Waters. The audience loved him.

The most enjoyable moments of the show were without a doubt given by the ensemble of chorus and dancers. The choral writing in this opera is rather sophisticated musically and the melodies and rhythms are infectious. The chorus sang superbly and danced extremely well. The choreography of Pauline Grossman was stylish and most entertaining to watch. Sean Burns and Michael Gallo deserve special mention, as their enthusiasm and expert articulation of the dance moves made them noticeable standouts.

There are three more performances of Treemonisha this weekend. If you are in Washington, this is a rare opportunity to view this original and unusual historic American opera.

Micaele Sparacino



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