SHOW BOAT Rolls Along at Washington National Opera
(via Broadway World) – A musical in the opera house: Sounds crazy, no? Well, it shouldn’t, especially when the musical in question is the granddaddy of modern musical theatre, 86 years young this year.
Regional theatre companies are often gun shy about producing old school musical epics, unless they can bring something new to the table or prepare a scaled down version of the title. The joint venture of a peppy yet smaller Hello, Dolly! presented by Ford’s Theatre and Signature Theatre is a case in point.
Show Boat would likely be a budget-busting investment of resources for most theatre companies, since Kern’s masterpiece with Oscar Hammerstein, II, requires a sizable orchestra, chorus and legitimate voices among the principal roles.
Show Boat has steamed into the Opera House of the Kennedy Center for a shiny, well-sung production by the Washington National Opera. This Show Boat should appeal to both fans of the venerable musical and those patrons with discerning musical tastes. Opera artists who can handle the demanding Jerome Kern score are on hand as well as Broadway veterans who have the chutzpah to put across the lighter moments.
Washington National Opera, under the new artistic leadership of Francesca Zambello, is a fitting berth for Captain Andy’s Cotton Blossom and the happy/troubled show folk who make it their home. Boasting a cast and chorus of 100, WNO’s Show Boat allows the story to roll along the 40-year time span and the glorious music to enthrall the audience once again.
Under the direction of conductor John DeMain, the Washington National Opera Orchestra kicks the performance off with the overture and continues to do justice to Kern’s stirring score. The orchestra, with the strength of 50 players, has the grandeur of a film orchestra with the bonus of live performance.
Taking the popular novel by Edna Ferber, Kern’s collaborator Hammerstein fashioned America’s first serious piece of musical theatre. Rising above the aspirations of European operettas and the frivolity of contemporary musical theatre, Hammerstein adapted Ferber’s book into a sweeping story of a family dealing with the changing times – from the late 1880s to the Roaring Twenties – and includes issues of race and marital strife.
Since there have been three major film versions of Show Boat and countless recordings, I will refrain from recounting the minute details of the plot.
For those who need a brief refresher: Captain Andy Hawks – a nimble-footed and charming Lara Teeter – and his stern (yet comical) wife Parthy – a wry Cindy Gold – run the Cotton Blossom river boat, traversing the mighty Mississippi River entertaining the masses with song, dance and “mellerdrammer.”
Andy and Parthy’s company includes troubled leading lady Julie LaVerne (a luminous Alyson Cambridge) and her husband Steve (Patrick Cummings), who become embroiled in racial politics of the Deep South. Joe and Queenie, the Cotton Blossom’s trusty domestic staff, are on hand to lend dignity and comic relief to the proceedings. Morris Robinson possesses a magnificent basso that inhabits the signature song “Old Man River” with authority and pathos and makes a pitch perfect Joe. As his wife, Angela Renee Simpson is a delightful foil and handles her musical duties with panache.
Comedy is also provided by the singing and dancing duo Frank and Ellie Mae. Broadway veterans Bernie Yvon (Ragtime) and Kate Loprest (Hairspray, Wonderland) fit their roles effectively.
The heart of Show Boat is the story of Magnolia Hawks, the daughter of Andy and Parthy Ann, whose journey from innocent girl to wounded leading lady provides the romantic arc all the way to the closing curtain. We follow her love affair with the silver-tongued, n’er-do-well gambler Gaylord Ravenal that begins picture perfect and ends on a bitter note. Their romance is tainted by Ravenal’s penchant for never turning down a gambling table, even if it means losing his possessions and his family. Magnolia remains faithful to Gaylord when he hits the road (noble abandonment?) as she ascends to Broadway stardom while raising daughter Kim.
The actress-singer who plays Magnolia has the challenge of convincingly going from the wide-eyed ingénue phase through her life-changing journey over a 40 year span. She must also perform some of Jerome Kern’s loveliest melodies. Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman was Magnolia on opening night and received a well deserved ovation. (She alternates with Jennifer Holloway throughout the run.)
Michael Todd Simpson cuts a dashing figure as Gaylord, and uses his rich baritone to great advantage, especially during his duets with Chuchman, “Only Make Believe,” and “Why Do I Love You?”
Kern and Hammerstein’s music and lyrics are in great hands at the Opera House, and if you miss a word or two, you can glance at the supertitles during the songs. (The dialogue is not projected.) There are many highlights, but Alyson Cambridge’s heartbreaking performance of the period song “Bill” when Julie is at the end of her rope is a crowd-pleaser, along with Robinson’s “Old Man River.”
Zambello’s staging is clean and brisk – except for some of the full company scenes which seem static and overly crowded. Her artistic collaborators display fine work, especially costume designer Paul Tazewell.
Washington National Opera is not the only company bridging the gap between classical musical theatre and the opera house. Show Boat is a joint production with Lyric Opera of Chicago, the San Francisco Opera Association, and Houston Grand Opera. No matter where you see this production, Show Boat is ready to entertain. Hopefully it will be around for another 86 years.