OPERA NEWS - Show Boat
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Kern: Show Boat

DVD Button Stober, Racette, A. R. Simpson, Harris, Wyatt; M. T. Simpson, Irwin, Bolton, Robinson. San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra, DeMain. Production: Zambello. EuroArts 2059688 (2 DVDs), 144 mins. (opera), 33 mins. (bonus), subtitled

Recordings Showboat Cover 1215

AS BEFITS A MUSICAL ABOUT itinerant show people, Francesca Zambello’s production of Show Boat is well traveled: it played north (Chicago), south (Houston) and east (Washington, D.C., where I hopped aboard) before it rolled west to San Francisco in June 2014. Casts varied from one town to another, but reviews—augmenting my own eyes and ears—testify that the entertainment quotient was consistently high: Zambello’s show effectively powers the potentially rickety vehicle that Edna Ferber, Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern set afloat way back when, with Ferber’s novel of 1926 and the two men’s musical adaptation of a year later.   

And entertainment is clearly Zambello’s priority. When the curtain rises, the singing  “colored folks” at work on the Mississippi (Hammerstein used a different epithet that this production avoids unless it comes from the lips of bigoted white folks) don’t seem to be breaking a sweat even when they’re wiping their brows; they look perfectly picturesque as they haul their bales and scrub their laundry. In general, Zambello downplays the harder edges of Ferber’s story (already softened by Hammerstein) in favor of a lively, splashy, feel-good show—and it’s hard to fault her when that’s exactly what she delivers. Peter J. Davison’s sets and Paul Tazewell’s multi-period costumes assist her well, and Michele Lynch’s dances seem just to happen, not to belong to some preplanned choreographic scheme. 

Musically, too, it’s a well-served show. Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations are beautifully played by San Francisco Opera’s bigger-than-Broadway-sized pit band under John DeMain, a long-experienced Show Boat pilot. The long score has been intelligently pruned, but we get “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’” (why was it ever omitted?) and “Hey, Fellah!”—both of them stirringly led by Angela Renée Simpson, a deftly played Queenie who skirts the latent embarrassments of a “mammy”-type role created by Tess “Aunt Jemima” Gardella in blackface.  She’s made a fine match with the Joe of Morris Robinson, the only major performer who hit all four ports of call: if his “Ol’ Man River” doesn’t roll along in the burnished mahogany tones of Paul Robeson, his more sinewy bass plumbs its depths to fine effect, and he’s a natural, engaging actor.  

Heidi Stober’s spoken delivery often sounds stagy, especially early on, as if the whole show were The Parson’s Bride (the boat’s hoary resident melodrama), but she’s a fine singer with a zippy top and a winning presence. Julie is an imperfect fit for Patricia Racette—she looks too mature, overplays the dialogue, and seems unsettled stylistically—but, predictably, she once again gives a role her all. Michael Todd Simpson—tall, lean, and handsome—sings and acts a good Ravenal, though he doesn’t really get far beneath this conflicted character’s skin. Of the assorted Broadway vets, Kirsten Wyatt and John Bolton do their Ellie-and-Frank shtick effectively; and Bill Irwin and Harriet Harris—both newcomers to the production—are pretty perfect as Cap’n Andy and Parthy; he’s charmingly adept with his race-to-the-finish one-man completion of “The Parson’s Bride.” 

The production was discreetly amplified for the not-small houses where it played, but apart from a few visible head mics, there’s scant indication of electronic enhancement here. This Show Boat’s next stop is Dallas, next spring, with the overall stronger cast I saw in Washington. Catch it if you can; it’s meant for the theater. But whether as preview, souvenir or simply on its own, San Francisco’s well-produced DVD is worth the purchase. —Patrick Dillon 

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