Quality Hill Playhouse, a reliable presenter of cherished show tunes and tasteful re-creations of the Great American Songbook, ventures into the early days of rock ’n’ roll with its new doo-wop themed production “Unchained Melody.”
The lighthearted show reveals that J. Kent Barnhart, the musical director and founder of the theater, is just as adept at presenting vintage pop trifles like “At the Hop” as he is showcasing compositions by Cole Porter.
Barnhart doesn’t attempt to compete with popular jukebox musicals such as “Jersey Boys” that feature some of the same selections. “Unchained Melody” relies on the strength of the material and the appealingly velvety voices of Samantha Agron, Christina Burton, Tim Noland and Robert Erik Sobbe. For the most part, it succeeds.
While “Unchained Melody” will appeal most to audiences who prefer Pat Boone’s manicured rendition of “Tutti Frutti” to Little Richard’s original crazed version, the cultivated cabaret approach resulted in several wonderful moments for a full house of 150 during a matinee show on Sunday.
The title selection was rendered with enchanting four-part harmony. Barnhart sang the bottom end of “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight” and “Blue Moon” with panache. The hushed but insinuating contributions of bassist Brian Wilson and drummer Ken Remmert redeemed an otherwise maudlin interpretation of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
Sobbe, an eager entertainer who has spent the last three years working on cruise ships, received a hearty ovation for his tantalizing re-creation of Johnnie Ray’s melodramatic 1951 hit “Cry.” Burton’s ingratiating personality shone in the taunting “My Boyfriend’s Back.” Yet Agron steals the show. Her persuasive lead vocals on “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?,” “Chains” and “Who’s Sorry Now?” as well as her appropriately sassy ensemble work are worth the price of admission.
Barnhart provided intriguing insights into the music’s history. After commending doo-wop for “bringing black and white audiences together,” he dissected the form’s harmonic structure. He offered background on doo-wop pioneers and gave a detailed account of the convoluted history of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” a selection he conceded was “one of those songs you either love or hate.”
Prior to a medley of songs associated with the Four Seasons, Barnhart said that “it’s easy to dismiss these songs as fluff you heard on the radio.” “Unchained Melody” proves that even seemingly inconsequential material is worthy of reassessment when it’s in Barnhart’s capable hands.
Bill Brownlee: @happyinbag