"The Boys Choir of Harlem and Friends," a two-and-a-half-hour extravaganza that opened a limited engagement at the Richard Rodgers Theater yesterday, is a wholesome family entertainment that wants to be many things to many people. Part variety show, part inspirational pageant, this rambling celebration of black culture takes in everything from Scott Joplin to rap, from old-time vaudeville to the poetry of Maya Angelou.
At the show's center is the 35-voice Boys Choir of Harlem, the chorus founded in 1968 by Walter J. Trumbull that has grown into a New York cultural institution. The choir, whose members range in age from 8 to 18, sings material that runs from Duke Ellington standards ("It Don't Mean a Thing," "Take the 'A' Train") to "Byede Mandela," by the South African actor and musician Tsepo Mokone, to a choral arrangement of Villa-Lobos's "Bachianas Brasileiras." Wearing sequin-crusted baseball caps, the choir even performs a rap number, "The Joy of Singing," that turns into a pop-gospel anthem.
Except for some rousing moments toward the end of the second act, the show is a surprisingly subdued and formal affair. Choreographed by Geoffrey Holder, the choir sings many of its numbers while moving (and sometimes dancing) in formation. Even when executing synchronized variations of the Charleston or the jitterbug, the identically costumed singers maintain an almost military precision. At its splashiest, the staging achieves an eye-catching grandeur of design.
At Saturday evening's preview performance, the chorus executed harmonized renditions of songs by Ellington, Joplin and Thelonious Monk with a hushed reverence. If the singing was precisely pitched, the tempos dragged and the performances lacked dynamism. The momentum picked up considerably in the second act, when the emphasis shifted from vintage jazz to contemporary pop and the singers, for the first time, seemed to enjoy themselves.
From its opening moments, when the dancer Carmen DeLavallade, dressed like a storybook princess, delivered a history of Harlem culture in the language of a fairy tale, the show was pitched toward a family audience. The other guests on Saturday included the magician Harry Blackstone, a quartet of comic hand puppets called the Crowations, the jazz and blues guitarist Kenny Burrell, Joyce Mathis, who sang the Villa-Lobos aria with the choir and the theatrical baritone Ron Richardson.
A few moments of spontaneous exuberance broke through the atmosphere of restrained celebration. Richard Lawson's lusty reading of Ms. Angelou's poem "Still I Rise," the show's most memorable spoken-word segment, sent a ripple of excitement through the theater. The musical high point was an a capella pop-gospel version of "The Star-Spangled Banner," performed with sassy embellishments and tricky rhythmic changes of pace by Ex-Girlfriend, a talented young female pop quartet.