WASHINGTON, May 5, 2013 – In its first-ever foray into popular American musical theater—aka, “Broadway”—the Washington National Opera has scored nothing less than a smash hit with its current production of Show Boat, which opened Saturday at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Some passionate opera aficionados may decry what they imagine to be the watering down of the operatic repertoire with such a venture. But to this critic, at least, WNO’s latest innovation—significantly, a co-production that also includes performances at Chicago’s Lyric Opera, the San Francisco Opera, and the Houston Grand Opera—marks a refreshing trend toward taking the best of American musical theater more seriously.
Debuting in New York during the 1927 Christmas holiday season, Show Boat was a musical breakthrough production on many levels. Basing their show on the eponymous novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning (and now nearly forgotten) American novelist Edna Ferber, composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II worked together to create something that was to prove daringly new. Taking a long, hard look at serious operas, lighter and more tuneful operettas, vaudeville shows, and purely theatrical productions, the team worked to carve out something entirely different yet stocked with familiar elements of all four formats.
Instead of the flimsy stories and revue-type approach that dominated popular musical stage entertainments of the time, Kern and Hammerstein retained much of Ferber’s plotline. As a result, the show’s musical numbers were able to flow more realistically from character and plot situations. In other words, like opera composers and librettists, Show Boat’s creative team employed music to support character and plot rather than the other way around.
Unlike opera, which at the same time was beginning to draw away from popular taste and into jagged experimentation, Kern and Hammerstein creatively appropriated elements of operetta, jazz, and vaudeville to create a musical stage play more attractive to American tastes. But they balanced this with an unaccustomed realism by incorporating some of the seamier and more distasteful elements of Ferber’s original into their show as well—specifically, the touchy subjects of race relations and miscegenation.
All this was edgy enough to make Show Boat’s producer, Florenz Ziegfeld, the legendary Broadway song and dance impresario, more than a bit worried about his investment. But to his credit, he stuck with the show, which soon became a legendary hit, arguably redirecting the course of American stage musicals for decades to come.
A bit like Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn, Show Boat is a picaresque American narrative charting the lives and times of average, self-reliant, working Americans who, far from sophisticated big city lights, were still exploring their country, their relationships, their possibilities, and themselves.
In some ways it might be useful to view Show Boat as a traveling American-style prequel to popular British TV serials like “Upstairs, Downstairs” or the more recent “Downton Abbey” where parallel social strata daily intersect in a world where people of all walks still quietly depend on one another despite social barriers.
On another level, Show Boat is also an American love story. Or, more properly, five interwoven American love stories: the stable, if rocky, long-term pairings of parental surrogates Captain Andy and Parthy Ann Hawks, and Queenie and Joe; the more dynamic, and often clouded relationships of the younger generation including Gaylord and Magnolia Hawks Ravenal and Steve and Julie LaVerne Baker; and the unexpected, successful pairing of Frank Schultz and the initially resistant Ellie May Chipley.
Show Boat is about as eclectic as any musical entertainment can be. Its unifying elements are the Mississippi River and the good ship Cotton Blossom, a floating boarding house and musical stage that houses an entourage of entertainers operating at varying levels of excellence. They put on a show in every port, and stitch together every type of music and showmanship that might appeal to the audience.
What’s special about this production?
In addition to its rich and varied score, WNO’s current production of Show Boat is a real antidote to some recent Broadway revivals, particularly touring productions. Increasingly guilty of pinching pennies, many of these revivals are shrinking the pit orchestra, compensating with electronic keyboards while absurdly miking-up the singers onstage, enabling weaker voices to achieve the decibel level more appropriate to a heavy-metal rock concert.
WNO’s production, while clearly employing some amplification employs a minimalist approach via its sound design by Acme Sound Partners (Seriously? A subsidiary of Wile E. Coyote Enterprises?) Add to this mostly natural-seeming sound a real, live, full-sized pit orchestra, and voilà! You have a miraculous return to the real Broadway musical as God originally intended for it to be heard.
WNO’s co-produced sets considerably exceed expectations. Colorful, evocative, and shifted to and fro at a rapid but not dizzying clip, this is a gloriously celebratory production that always pulsates and never drags.
Screens, scrims, and backdrops moved seamlessly, rapidly, and virtually noiselessly, save for one brief moment during opening night’s second stanza where the front-most scrim caught briefly in the rising curtain behind it crashed resoundingly, momentarily startling everyone. (Though the cast kept its poise.)
Contributing to the period look and feel of the show—the sweeping story spans roughly 30 years—Paul Tazewell’s costume designs are authentic, bright, and often spectacular, reflecting not only each decade in time, but also faithfully conjuring up the period spirit of popular riverboat and vaudeville fare.
Michele Lynch’s choreography is as lively as the stage trappings, although, with a vaunted “cast of 100,” production numbers still seem a bit thin in terms of numbers.
Characters and cast
The most impressive singers in this cast on opening night were soprano Andriana Chuchman as Magnolia Hawks and bass Morris Robinson as Joe. Ms. Chuchman brought to this performance not only a warm, bright, lively, and articulate instrument that easily charted her character’s passage from her girlish teens to her more poised and world-wise forties. She also brought to Magnolia the kind of plucky, cockeyed optimism that used to be taken for granted as an essential part of the American character. An excellent actor and dancer, Ms. Chuchman does it all and does it well, engaging and involving the audience to take her side as she bravely tries to overcome life’s travails.
As Joe, the calmly deliberate black stevedore who ultimately anchors this show, Morris Robinson couldn’t have been more perfectly cast. A large man who carries himself deliberately, Mr. Robinson’s Joe is the central intelligence of Show Boat, articulating the pageants of life and time at key intervals by striking up this musical’s immortal, signature song, “Old Man River.”
Over this show’s nearly 90 years of existence, the tempo and styling of this song have varied considerably. But on Saturday, Mr. Robinson seems to have gotten things exactly right, catching both the slow and relentless flow of the timeless Mississippi as well as the equally relentless ebb and flow of human experience. No one who hears Mr. Robinson during Show Boat’s nearly month-long run this season will be likely to forget this performance.
As Magnolia’s love interest, dashing riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal, Michael Todd Simpson proved a dashing and appealing leading man. Both he and Ms. Chuchman ignited a marvelous but hard to achieve romantic chemistry on stage as well, adding real depth to their characters as well as to the production. Mr. Simpson’s rich, supple baritone voice was the perfect match for his character’s youthful confidence. During those moments when he joined with Ms. Chuchman’s lustrous soprano in their characters’ short, exuberant duets…well, that’s what theatrical magic is all about.
Love takes many paths in this show, as the initially promising but ultimately unfortunate relationship between the show boat’s original lead couple—Julie (soprano Alyson Cambridge) and Steve (baritone Patrick Cummings)—soon proves. Their early, brief musical moments together are delightful. But their doomed, forbidden marriage quickly sends them into exile and an eventual tragic denouement, an outcome Ms. Cambridge convincingly articulates in her bitter, lonely, second act solo, “Bill.”
Things turn out a bit better for the show boat’s designated stage villain, Frank Schultz (musical theater vet baritone Bernie Yvon) and the showgirl he keeps on chasing, Ellie May Chipley (TV and Broadway actress/singer Kate Loprest). Frank’s seemingly doomed pursuit of Ellie May adds a nice comic touch to this production, and their eventually bright personal and professional relationship as “Schultz and Schultz” in the second act adds warmth and compassion to the mix.
The show boat’s longtime “downstairs” couple—Mr. Robinson’s Joe and soprano Angela Reneé Simpson’s Queenie—demonstrate that a deep companionship can long outlast the early fireworks of youthful love. The same holds true for the show boat’s hyperactive and politically adept Captain Andy Hawks (musical theater vet Lara Teeter) and his formidable spouse Parthy Ann (mezzo Cindy Gold). Both couples seem to serve as surrogate moms and dads for the Cotton Blossom’s boisterous but generally good-hearted inhabitants.
Captain Andy and Parthy Ann don’t get to sing much. But on more than one occasion, Mr. Teeter’s considerable dancing talents liven up the show. Ms. Simpson’s Queenie gets a few more opportunities to strut her stuff and does so with great spirit. Her finest vocal moments are standouts, including her jazzy, blues-y delivery of one of the show’s signature songs—“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”—as well as the dirge-like “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun,’ a key song that’s been inexplicably cut from several revivals.
This production’s lively cast—both in the chorus and in spoken roles—kept both the river and the show boat rolling in a show that never seems to come to a full stop. Ditto the Washington National Opera Orchestra, which almost perfectly re-created the distinctive sense and spirit of a traditional, old-time Broadway theater ensemble.
We say “almost” because the orchestra was as limp as a wet dishrag through the entirety of the show’s overture. Fortunately, Maestro John DeMain was able to loosen things up after about ten minutes or so, and that opening flub was soon forgotten.
Francesca Zambello’s direction
A special hat tip here goes to director Francesca Zambello whose steady hand and constant attention to a multitude of minute details kept this production not only incredibly on track, but notably authentic in nearly every detail.
Nice historical touches were in evidence in the cast’s attitudes and actions. Vaudeville and traveling road show traditions were seamlessly and hilariously preserved during the production’s brief but very funny show-within-a-show scenes as well as in Captain Andy’s hyperactive personality.
This show’s threatening moments of racial confrontation weren’t airbrushed in the least. Yet blessedly, they also weren’t deployed as a moral brickbat as they were in a notable 1993 Toronto production. “Show, don’t tell,” we used to learn when studying novels and the theater. That’s still great advice for writers and directors today as this production proves.
Whether you regard the original as Broadway’s first modern hit, as the very first genuine American opera, or both, this production is a genuine hit and is likely a hot ticket despite the record number of performances—fifteen—that WNO is mounting. To have a chance to catch this show, click the Washington National Opera link here and get your Show Boat tickets before the good ship Cotton Blossom leaves its Potomac River dock and sails off into the sunset.
Rating: **** (Four out of four stars)
WNO’s Show Boat continues its run, with alternating casts at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House through May 26, 2013. Since the alternate cast’s Gaylord Ravenal, Rodney Gilfrey, has recently withdrawn from this production, Michael Todd Simpson has agreed to extend his portrayal of the character for most upcoming performances. Check the WNO Kennedy Center website for the most current casting information.
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