A musical like Show Boat doesn’t come around very often. For one thing, the sheer size of the production made it necessary for composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II to seek the help of Florenz Ziegfeld, who was famous for creating lavish spectacles, to produce the 1927 Broadway premiere. In the present day, it takes the resources of a major opera company to really pull it off. We are lucky the San Francisco Opera's doing the landmark musical at all, seeing as Show Boat's not exactly an opera. Although the cast has varied since, this particular production premiered at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2012 and has played Houston Grand Opera and Washington National Opera.
The importance of Show Boat in the history of musical theater can’t be emphasized enough. Before it came along in 1927, the idea of a "serious" musical was a contradiction in terms; Roaring Twenties productions were light, silly spectacles that provided plenty of popular standards, but not much in the way of plot. With a script adapted by Hammerstein from Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel of the same name, Show Boat tells a sweeping tale of show biz, racism, bitter poverty and tragic love that spans 40 years (or, in butt-in-seat terms, two hours and 45 minutes). The subject matter may be deep, but Show Boat also contributed its share of classics to the popular music canon, most notably “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”
It was also the first racially integrated musical, with black and white performers singing together. The part of Joe, the stevedore who sings “Ol’ Man River,” was specifically written for the great bass-baritone singer and actor Paul Robeson, although due to production delays and scheduling conflicts Jules Bledsoe originated the part. At the same time, the other major African-American role in the show was played by Tess Gardella, a popular Italian-American blackface performer best known for the stage persona Aunt Jemima. It was an interesting time.
With this history in mind, it’s impressive how well Show Boat stands up today. Some of the rough edges of the dialect in the lyrics and dialogue have been smoothed out over the years; the very first lyric of the show is now “Colored folk work on the Mississippi, colored folk work while the white folks play,” rather than opening with a much harsher word. Now such language is reserved for bad guys like the villainous engineer Pete (James Asher). In fact, the play’s portrayal of racial prejudice is so stark and damning, it’s hard to imagine how Show Boat went over when it first premiered in a still-unapologetically segregated United States.
Hammerstein, of course, would continue to tackle racism head-on in later musicals such as 1949’s South Pacific.
As the name indicates, the play centers around a troupe of traveling performers aboard the show boat Cotton Blossom, or at least the first act does. The boat docks in Natchez, Mississippi and the trouble begins with a spurned suitor enlisting a local sheriff to expose that the leading lady is part African-American. And she is married to her white costar in a state where “miscegenation” is illegal. But just before the law arrives, her husband cuts her finger and sucks some of her blood. He prevents their arrest with the honest claim that he has “some Negro blood in him." It’s a poignant scene that effectively exposes the ludicrousness of the “one drop rule,” which determined whether someone was categorized as black or white. Soprano Patricia Racette, who starred in last year’s Dolores Claiborne, is marvelous as the woe-plagued actress Julie, beautifully delivering the bluesy “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill.” She’s also quite amusing in the overwrought melodrama that’s the boat’s stock-in-trade.
But all that is ultimately just background to the main attraction, which is the love story between Magnolia Hawks, the bright and beautiful daughter of the boat’s captain, and Gaylord Ravenal, a handsome and charming riverboat gambler who falls in love with her at first sight. Soprano Heidi Stober and baritone Michael Todd Simpson are delightful in their sprightly musical flirtations and touching in the high times and hard times that come in the decades covered during the second act.
Director Francesca Zambello gives the musical a dazzling staging with elaborate sets by Peter J. Davison (particularly the three-story show boat itself) and bright costumes in various permutations of red, white and blue by Paul Tazewell. Big production numbers abound, choreographed by Michele Lynch, with large choruses and nimble dancers popping up all over. The cast is a great mixture of theater and opera stars that blend together seamlessly.
Nautical impresario Cap’n Andy Hawks is deftly played by the great comic actor Bill Irwin, who cut his teeth clowning in San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus in the 1970s and went on to great acclaim on Broadway, winning a Tony for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? His desperate one-man reenactment of a play interrupted by an overzealous audience member is a comedic tour de force. Harriet Harris, familiar from screen roles on Frasier and Desperate Housewives and a Tony winner for Thoroughly Modern Millie, is an appropriately haughty and forbidding presence as his domineering wife.
Kirsten Wyatt charms as the amusingly squeaky-voiced comedienne of the troupe. Bass Morris Robinson exudes gravitas as Joe, delivering a lovely “Ol’ Man River” and its many reprises, and dramatic soprano Angela Renée Simpson is a playful, upbeat presence as the cook Queenie. Even the smallest roles are filled impressively: Broadway veteran and San Francisco cabaret mainstay Sharon McNight has essentially a walk-on part as a pugnacious landlady, but it’s an entertaining one.
Don’t get me wrong, the story’s pretty simple, and whatever deep social issues it touches on it does so only glancingly. But Show Boat is touching nonetheless, especially in the hands of such an impressive ensemble. Kern and Hammerstein’s memorable songs have seldom sounded sweeter than they do here, in the capable hands of the orchestra and mammoth chorus conducted by John DeMain.
Show Boat may be one of the oldest musicals still in circulation (Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas notwithstanding), but San Francisco Opera amply proves that it’s much, much more than a relic of a bygone era.
Show Boat runs through July 2, 2014 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit sfopera.com.
All photos © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.