In Review > Concerts and Recitals

Show Boat

NEW YORK CITY
The New York Philharmonic
11/5/14

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Norm Lewis as Joe in the New York Philharmonic's semi-staged production of Show Boat, directed and conducted by Ted Sperling
© Chris Lee 2014
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Lauren Worsham and Vanessa Williams as Magnolia and Julie
© Chris Lee 2014
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Sperling, conducting the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee 2014

In recent years the New York Philharmonic has been stretching itself with semi-staged concert readings of some of the great Broadway musicals. The last two seasons saw successful mountings of Carousel and Sweeney Todd. This year it was the grandaddy of them all, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s classic Show Boat. 

Once again, the Philharmonic assembled a top-tier musical-theater cast. Director–conductor Ted Sperling devised a new performing edition that was as close as possible to the spirit of the 1927 original, but included “Ah Still Suits Me,” composed for the 1936 film version, and re-instated “It’s Getting Hotter in the North,” which had been cut during previews. On opening night, November 5, at Avery Fisher Hall, Sperling conducted the Philharmonic with great sensitivity and period style, using as his basis the original orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett. (Undoubtedly these were somewhat expanded; it’s not likely that a band the size of the Philharmonic could have fit into the pit of the Ziegfeld Theater. But for this epically-scaled work, who could complain?) 

Sets and props were mostly suggested, except for tables and chairs; scene changes were announced with projected titles, Alan Adelman’s very active lighting scheme helped fill in the blank spots and spur the imagination. Tracy Christensen’s costume designs did not seem to be fully thought through; some characters appeared in garb that suggested the period; others in contemporary attire. It was an odd misstep, due perhaps to budgetary constraints.

The big news of the concert was the Gaylord Ravenal of West End star Julian Ovenden, who plays the role of Charles Blake on Downton Abbey.  Diminutive but radiating sex appeal, he acted the role with great charm and poignance, and sang in a full, virile-sounding leading-man tenor. His Magnolia, equally petite of stature, was Tony nominee Lauren Worsham, taking time off from A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.  She was a touching, spirited Magnolia, her soprano sweet and true. Vanessa Williams radiated star wattage as Julie. She might have made more of her dramatic final moment onstage, but she sang well and has probably never looked as smashingly beautiful. (Her striking costumes were specially designed by Carmen Marc Valvo.) Cap’n Andy was reliable comedy veteran Fred Willard (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show), who was a bit small-scale in Act I but grew in Act II, especially during the moving scene where he is reunited with Magnolia in the Chicago music hall. His Parthy was Jane Alexander, not a naturally gifted comedienne, but reasonably amusing here. 

Norm Lewis lent his burnished baritone to the role of Joe; if he was not able to plumb the basso depths of Paul Robeson or William Warfield in his “Old Man River,” he nonetheless brought out the song’s intertwined elements of exhaustion and urgency. NaTasha Yvette Williams was a vibrantly funny Queenie; her “Ballyhoo” number was a high point. As Kim, Erika Henningsen belted beautifully, and executed Randy Skinner’s very authentic 1920s Charleston choreography with ease and abandon. Alli Mauzey had fun with the role of Ellie; as her husband Frank, the invaluable Christopher Fitzgerald evoked a century’s worth of hoofers and vaudevillians while making the part very much his own. 

Show Boat depends on its chorus about as much as do Khovanschina and Turandot. This one was first-rate, filled with strong voices and committed singing actors who seemed to be living the drama, making one forget that this was a concert performance. spacer 

ERIC MYERS

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