There were some people in the audience who were in high school in the 1940s, and I’m sure the Waimea Community Chorus brought back memories of what they heard back then on the radio, the jukebox, and in the dance halls.
For the rest of us, Justin Henshaw, like an old-time news reporter, painted a scene of what was going on at the time each song was written. Then, deftly changing his voice, his hat, and his persona, he turned into a music announcer, giving us the songwriter, the song’s place on the charts, who made it famous. Justin is an entertainer in his own right, and he kept us laughing and in anticipation of the next tune – by such greats as Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein.
The first half of the evening covered 1941 to 1945. Those were the WWII years, but you wouldn’t know about the hardships and heartache people went through from the songs of that era. The songs aimed to keep the populace upbeat, to give them an escape from the reality of war, to focus on the captivating theme of romantic love. Even the songs that mention things related to war are optimistic – the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy goes from famous “trumpet man” to happily playing reveille in an army band after he’s drafted. A soldier wags his finger at his girl and tells her “don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone but me.”
In this part of the program, there was not a lot of variety in tempo or mood – almost all were played at a lively pace, with lots of bounce per ounce. Not all the songs seemed appropriate to a chorus – more suited to solo or smaller groups of singers like the Andrews Sisters – but when you have a chorus, the chorus sings!
The Kahilu usually has great acoustics, but the area where the singers were standing behind the band should have been miked since their sound was overpowered by the instruments. I moved to the back to see if it was better there, and it was…. but I still had trouble hearing the Chorus enunciate the words. The accomplished brass, woodwind, bass, drum and piano players were clearly trying to be complementary to the Chorus and not the main event. However, they were a major element of the evening’s success; their swing and jazz accompaniments are what gave the songs the rhythms of the 40’s. David Tarnas provided lilting flute highlights to “Skylark” in a special appearance. When soloists or small groups of singers came to the front and sang with a mic, the sound was well-balanced.
In the second half with songs up to 1949, the Chorus hit their stride, singing with greater ease and infectious good humor. Certain members were showcased, and they turned in show-stoppers. Kathy Cazimero knocked our socks off with her jazzy rendition of “Sentimental Journey.” Operatic soprano Amy Mills and tenor John Stover had impeccable tone, timing, and togetherness in “If I Loved you.” Clem Lam needs to play a lead in a musical; he’s got both the voice and the ability to ham it up good! “Swinging on a Star” was a crowd favorite, with the mule, pig and fish acted out by Lam and the irrepressible emcee Henshaw.
But the best was the last in the medley of 1949 songs. The barbershop quartet of John Stover, Steve Kaplan, Everett Knowles and Eric Will in “Mona Lisa” were in perfect harmony; the girls in “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” flaunted their jewels as well as their voices. Rona Lee’s performance of “Bali Hai” was a siren song, as she effortlessly reached low and high notes with an understated simplicity – no tricks, no drawn out vibrato, just the purity of her ethereal voice. And Duncan Dempster performing “Some Enchanted Evening” from his wheelchair (still recovering from being hit by a car) proved that his unique low-register bass voice was not harmed. His moving performance earned a standing ovation, and ensured that we indeed had an enchanted evening.
Which brings me to what’s so terrific about going to hear this Community Chorus: you can cheer for your friends and neighbors, and marvel at all the talent we have right here in River City (to jump to the 1950’s)! It is not an easy thing to direct 50 singers who range from professionals to singers-in-the-shower, but Barbara Kopra does just that. She put together a delightful evening of song, history lesson, comedy, instrumentals, and the wonder of being together with folks you love.
It is the mission of the Chorus to spread joy. Mission accomplished!
For more info on the Waimea Community Chorus, please visit: http://www.waimeacommunitytheatre.org
All photos by Steve Roby.