When Show Boat premiered on Broadway in 1927, it introduced a new type of musical to the stage. In place of the usual lightweight comedies and revues of the era, audiences experienced an epic play with multiple storylines that went where none had gone before: into the sobering themes of racial prejudice and unhappy marriages. Show Boat was based on the 1926 novel of the same name by Edna Ferber, who was at first taken aback that anyone would want to turn her realistic tale of riverboat life on a Mississippi River show boat into a musical. Assured by composer Jerome Kern that he wouldn’t ruin her story by turning it into something frivolous, she consented to allow Kern and collaborator Oscar Hammerstein II (as lyricist) the rights to put her novel to music. Show Boat has since become an enduring classic of the theater, featuring a wonderful score with songs like “Can’t Help Lovin’ dat Man,” “Bill” (with lyrics by P. G. Wodehouse, revised by Hammerstein) and of course, “Ol’ Man River,” that stirring anthem of struggle and survival.
This Saturday and Sunday, July 7 and 8, the Opera Company of the Highlands will offer the opportunity to hear the music of Show Boat performed in a unique location: on Bannerman’s Island. The ticket price of $65 includes the performance as well as the round-trip boat excursion to the island and a guided tour. Ticketholders will be taken by the vessel Pollepel from the dock at Torches on the Hudson in Newburgh at 3 and 4 p.m. Showtime is 5 p.m. The Pollepel only holds about 46 people at one time, says Terri Vargas, board member of the opera company, so early reservations are advised.
The group that departs from Torches at 3 p.m. will go on a guided tour of Bannerman’s Island upon arrival there, while the boat goes back to Newburgh to pick up the 4 p.m. departure group. When that group arrives at Bannerman’s Island, the 5 p.m. performance of Show Boat will commence for all. When the performance ends, the first group will go back to Newburgh on the Pollepel as the 4 p.m. departure group then receives its guided tour of the island. The tour will encompass the areas of Bannerman’s Island that have been shored up and are safe, says Vargas, but sneakers or walking shoes are recommended, and hard hats will be issued to tourgoers.
The website for the vessel Pollepel gives some additional advisories for visiting the island, which is not open to the public without a guided tour. Visitors should be aware that conditions on the island are primitive (with only portable toilet facilities), and that some paths and trails are steep and involve climbing steps. For more information, visit www.prideofthehudson.com/pollepel-schedule.shtml.
The production will be a concert version of Show Boat, not to include the dramatic action of the play. It’ll be an intimate affair, given that fewer than 100 people can be taken by boat in two trips to the island. The performance will be held outdoors.
There will also be an encore concert performance of Show Boat by the Opera Company of the Highlands on Sunday, July 15 at the restored Ritz Theater in Newburgh, a few blocks from the waterfront, where the performances on Bannerman’s Island will be moved should there be rain on either day of the island shows.
The Opera Company of the Highlands was founded in 2005 by soprano Claudia Cummings after she and her husband, Shakespearean actor Jack Aranson, retired from the stage to live and work in Orange County. After a period of inactivity due to illness and restructuring of the company, Cummings is bringing the company back with this production of Show Boat, returning as artistic director emerita.
The conductor and music director of Show Boat will be maestra Elizabeth Hastings of the Liederkranz Opera. The cast includes returning members of the company soprano Shira Renee Thomas as Magnolia, soprano Vira Slywotzky as Julie and baritone Matthew Singer as Gaylord Ravenal, along with newcomer to the company mezzo-soprano Chantelle Grant in the role of Queenie. Local radio personality John Moultrie will serve as narrator, and the soloists will be joined by the Opera Company of the Highlands Chorus, with musical assistance from Ryan Kennedy. The show is coming to Bannerman’s Island through the efforts of Neil Caplan of the Bannerman Castle Trust, who asked Cummings to bring the show there, says Vargas.
When Frank Bannerman purchased the land originally known as Pollopel (or Pollepel) Island in 1900, he had a successful business selling surplus military equipment out of a showroom in New York City. After buying Pollopel Island to store his supply of volatile explosives and war weapons, he spent 17 years designing the island’s buildings in the style of old Scottish castles, with turrets and a moat. In 1969, a fire of unknown origin destroyed all of the buildings, and for years the picturesque remnants of what was once there could be seen only from shore, passing by it on the Metro-North train going to and from the City, or from boat cruises passing near. For more information about Bannerman’s Island, visit www.bannermancastle.org.
For ticket information and reservations for the Show Boat excursion, contact Terri Vargas at (845) 565-6366. For more information about the Opera Company of the Highlands, visit www.operacompanyofthehighlands.org. There will be an encore performance of Showboat at the Ritz Theatre in Newburgh on Sunday, July 15 at 3 p.m. Tickets for that show are $25.