It’s nearly certain that most aficionados of the American musical theatre would agree that Jerome Kern (Music) and Oscar Hammerstein II’s (Book and Lyrics) Show Boat, based on Edna Ferber’s novel, is one of those memorable shows that has – and will continue to – withstand the test of time for good reason. Its glorious and classically-infused score, serious and well-constructed book tackling an array of major issues of social importance, and richly drawn characters are certainly things that set it apart from the standard musical fare of the 1920s.
To that end, there’s probably no question that any production of Show Boat will draw in the musical theatre-loving crowd. Yet, the Washington National Opera’s current production at the Kennedy Center, under the direction of its Artistic Director Francesca Zambello, makes a good case for the idea that this work – if done properly – can defy the labels and simply be viewed as a powerful artistic masterpiece.
Whether one is an opera fan who is more comfortable with the likes of Verdi and Mozart, a musical theatre fan who shudders at the thought of listening to classically trained singers sing in a foreign tongue for several hours, or even if one is an admirer of great dramas and not so much a fan of music, this Show Boat offers something for everyone. A visual and aural feast, it’s simply stunning.
Under the direction of Zambello – who is one of the best women to present a musical theatre work in an opera environment thanks to her diverse expertise – a large cast of Broadway and opera singers/actors, musicians, dancers, and choral members give their all to the compelling story of the performers and workers on the Cotton Blossom, a showboat that traverses the Mississippi River from the late 1800s to the 1920s. They endure personal and collective trials and tribulations, from racial discrimination and hatred and addiction to marital strife on the boat and beyond, forming bonds and learning life lessons along the way as they entertain the masses.
Memorable songs like the choral “Cotton Blossom,” the melodically rich and powerful “Ol’ Man River,” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” the comedic “Life on the Wicked Stage” and more give us further insight into all of these wonderful characters that wander through the boat, enhancing rather than detracting from the telling of the story.Because the music and the story are so well-connected, it’s imperative to have principal cast members who can sing as well as they can act and act as well as they can sing. Thankfully, this production features many of them.
At the center is the young Canadian opera talent Andriana Chuchman as Magnolia Hawks (also played by Jennifer Holloway at some performances) who comes of age on her parents’ boat. In a memorable Washington, DC debut, she makes every moment count with her lilting soprano voice that’s perfectly suited to every number. Tackling a diverse array of music styles from ‘ragtime’ numbers like the reprise of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” to the emotion-filled Act II ballad “Dance Away the Night,” she proves she not only has a versatile voice (a rarity, I find in many young opera singers) but truly connects with the words she’s singing.
Other standouts include Angela Renée Simpson (Queenie, a role also performed by Gwendolyn Brown) and Alyson Cambridge (Julie LaVerne, a role also performed by Talise Trevigne). Both trained opera singers, they take on their strong female roles with reckless abandon as singer/actors. Simpson brings an equally vivacious and comedic edge to the no-nonsense boat worker in the book scenes and musical numbers. Her flexible and powerful, rich voice is neither ‘musical theatre-like’ or ‘operatic’. A label is not necessary. It’s simply great.
Likewise, Cambridge’s supple voice also defies labels. The jazzy tone she uses in “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’ makes that song, in particular, even more memorable. Thanks to Cambridge’s attention to detail, we also see Julie as more than simply a songstress with a beautiful voice. Ms. Cambridge’s subtle yet heartbreaking take on Julie’s unraveling in the second act is particularly noteworthy and proves she’s one of those rare finds of a classically trained singer who can express emotion in the silence as well.
Further to the point, even if Zambello presents a crucial scene of racial discrimination a bit too quickly for my taste – a rare misstep in this production – Cambridge makes the most of it nonetheless and delivers a stunningly human reaction to Julie’s horrifying predicament. Patrick Cumming, as her spouse Steve Baker, is a worthy scene partner in this moment as well.
Three other performers also give exceptional performances that contribute greatly to the success of this production. Musical theatre veterans Cindy Gold (Parthy Ann Hawks, a role shared with Mary-Pat Green) and Kate Loprest (the vaudevillian actress Ellie May Chipley) excel with their characters’ comedic moments. Loprest, who has impressed me in a number of Broadway and regional productions, is the very definition of a triple threat as she takes on the “Life on the Wicked Stage.” Comedy is hard stuff – especially in a show as dramatic as this one – and she and Gold deliver it flawlessly.
The exceptional American bass Morris Robinson (the boat hand Joe, a role shared with Soloman Howard) delivers one of the vocal highlights in this production. Although it may seem pretty hard to destroy – and not in a good way – a song like “Ol’ Man River,” I’ve seen it done on more than one occasion, including in a recent production in our area. Robinson destroys it in a good way. Although Joe’s not really an acting role, he still makes an impression. His voice is a revelation.
Closes May 26, 2013
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
2 hours, 50 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $30 – $270
Two casts perform Tuesdays thru Sundays
Last, but certainly not least, is the chorus and the orchestra. Although large in number [100 chorus members, supported by a 50-piece orchestra] and featuring many powerful voices that blend together nicely, the chorus does have one major shortcoming. At the performance I attended, the choral members’ diction in Act I was so poor that if I had not known Hammerstein’s lyrics nearly by heart (and had a clear view of the English surtitles), I would have had little clue as to what they were singing about. Although unfortunate – given the sheer genius that are Hammerstein’s lyrics – the situation improved somewhat in Act II. The gloriously large orchestra, on the other hand, delivers an exceptionally precise yet enthusiastic performance under the baton of John DeMain. Its lush sound only makes the evening at the opera even more special.
Show Boat . Music by Jerome Kern . Book & Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II . Based on the novel Show Boat by Edna Ferber . Director: Francesca Zambello . Conductor: John DeMain . Choreographer: Michele Lynch . Associate Director: E. Loren Meeker . Set Designer: Peter J. Davison . Costume Designer: Paul Tazewell . Lighting Designer: Mark McCullough . Company Premiere . Co-production with Washington National Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, the San Francisco Opera Association, and Houston Grand Opera . Reviewed by Jennifer Perry.
Susan Eisenberg . Huffington Post
Eve M. Ferguson . Washington Informer
Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
Terry Ponick . Washington Times
Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
Elliot Lanes . MDTheatreGuide
Doug Rule . MetroWeekly
Barbara Mackay . Washington Examiner
Mike Paarlberg . City Paper
Don . WeLoveDC
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
Anne Midgette . Washington Post
Jessica Vaughan . DCMetroTheaterArts
Jeffrey Walker . BroadwayWorld
Susan Eisenberg . Huffington Post