In Review > North America

Show Boat

San Francisco Opera

In Review Show Boat hdl 814
Show Boat in San Francisco, with Stober, Racette, Angela Renée Simpson and Robinson
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera 2014

The announcement that San Francisco Opera would include Show Boat in its 2014 summer season was met with dismay by some local operagoers: in SFO's three-production late-spring series, one non-operatic offering seemed one too many. But the opening performance on June 1 was a resounding success, with a stylish, suitably large-scale staging directed by Francesca Zambello, inhabited by a huge ensemble of opera and theater artists and — under conductor John DeMain's baton — a gorgeous, enveloping musical performance of the landmark score by Jerome Kern.

Based on Edna Ferber's novel of life on a Mississippi riverboat, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Show Boat spans nearly half a century, from the 1880s to the Roaring Twenties, as Magnolia Hawks, daughter of Cap'n Andy of the Cotton Blossom riverboat, meets, marries, is abandoned by and eventually reconciles with gambler Gaylord Ravenal. Zambello's staging, coproduced by San Francisco Opera, Washington National Opera, Houston Grand Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, traversed the musical's eras and locales seamlessly, including a visit to Chicago and the 1893 World's Fair; if Peter J. Davison's sets — enhanced by Mark McCullough's lighting — occasionally looked undersized on the War Memorial stage, Zambello kept the cast, costumed by Paul Tazewell with specificity in each decade, moving in an engaging, eye-catching flow. Michele Lynch's sassy choreography — a jubilant parade of rags, shuffles, cakewalks, Charlestons and Black Bottoms — enlivened the action.

Posing a greater challenge was the task of illuminating the heart of the story — the dramatic miscegenation subplot that sends Julie La Verne, the star performer on the Cotton Blossom, into exile. If Zambello and her cast managed this without offering any fresh insight or particular depth, the weary, doleful comportment of the black workers, and the songs themselves, created an atmosphere that spoke eloquently of America's shameful racial history. Show Boat remains a magnificent assemblage of themes and songs, and the triumph of this production was DeMain's mastery of the score. Conducting a bespoke version that comprised the original 1927 score and the overture created for the 1946 Broadway revival and included songs such as the affecting "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'" and Queenie's bawdy "Hey, Fellah!" DeMain achieved a superbly stirring, specifically American sound, one that encompassed European operetta traditions in songs such as "You Are Love" and evoked African–American idioms in syncopated rhythms and the twang of banjo and guitar. Throughout, the orchestra played as if they were ready to take the show on the road. Ian Robertson's twin choruses — one white, one African–American — sang with power, finesse and, yes, operatic sweep.

The cast, unevenly amplified, was strongest in the leading roles. Soprano Heidi Stober imparted poise and alluring, unfettered tone to the role of Magnolia, and Michael Todd Simpson, making his company debut as Gaylord, introduced a warm, ardent lyric baritone. Morris Robinson may be this generation's preeminent Joe; singing "Ol' Man River," the bass produced great, rolling sound and a piercing sense of the sorrow and resignation acquired by the stevedore over a lifetime of injustice. As Julie, Patricia Racette — who returned to SFO later in the month in the title role of the company's Madama Butterfly — initially seemed dramatically recessive, but she soared vocally in "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and delivered a luxuriant, big-hearted "Bill." Angela Renée Simpson was a vibrant, expansive Queenie; Kirsten Wyatt's Ellie Mae and John Bolton's Frank handled their scenes with comic flair. 

Bill Irwin's Cap'n Andy moved with the assurance and pinpoint timing of a great vaudevillian but was often inaudible in spoken episodes. Harriet Harris, however, had no trouble making herself heard as the rough-hewn Parthy. James Asher's Pete, Patrick Cummings's Steve and Sharon McNight's Mrs. O'Brien made characterful contributions, and Carmen Steele created a brief but indelibly tender impression as Young Kim. spacer 


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