June 25, 2015


Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II: Show Boat. Heidi Stober, Michael Todd Simpson, Bill Irwin, Patricia Racette, Morris Robinson, Angela Renée Simpson, Harriet Harris, Kirsten Wyatt, John Bolton; San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra conducted by John DeMain. EuroArts DVD. $29.99.

     The decade of the Roaring Twenties in the United States and the Weimar Republic in Germany was one of tremendous musical as well as social ferment. One central trend was the increasing seriousness of operetta, which had been largely fluff and nonsense in the years leading up to World War I. Leading the push to give operetta some of the heft of Puccinian opera was Puccini’s friend and colleague, Franz Lehár, who in this decade produced Paganini (1925), his first collaboration with tenor Richard Tauber, and then Der Zarewitsch (1926), Friederike (1928), and Das Land des Lächelns (1929), all of them bittersweet works with ambiguous and pathos-drenched endings, all of them reflective of a darker and less frothy world than that portrayed in Die lustige Witwe and Der Graf von Luxemburg.

     In the United States, where there was little tradition of homegrown operetta despite the contributions to the form by John Philip Sousa, darker and more-serious themes emerged on Broadway, led in large part by Show Boat (1927), whose handling of racial prejudice and poignant love stories – all taken from Edna Ferber’s novel – offered a level of seriousness that was as new to the Ziegfeld Theater in New York as Lehár’s important 1920s works were to Vienna’s Johann Strauß-Theater and Berlin’s Deutsches Künstlertheater and Metropol Theater.

     Show Boat paved the way for many musicals that later handled complex and difficult themes, such as South Pacific. And it is certainly arguable that a work like Show Boat gets its full due only in a full-scale operatic production like that delivered by the San Francisco Opera and now available on a EuroArts DVD.  Indeed, the leitmotif of the river’s theme, so memorably captured in that most classic of Broadway songs, Ol’ Man River, recurs so frequently, tying so many strands of the plot together, that the overall feeling of Show Boat is distinctly operatic – especially when a full orchestra performs the music, as it does here.

     What works beautifully in this production is that orchestra, led by John DeMain with enthusiasm, involvement, majesty and rich musical color. What works are the sprawling sets created by Peter J. Davison, along with perspective-bending stage pieces that contain the action while at the same time framing and focusing it. What works are Paul Tazewell’s bright and attractive costumes, many of them in red, white, and blue, emphasizing that this is a quintessentially American story.

     What works rather less well is Michele Lynch’s choreography: there is a lot of dancing here, but after a while the steps and patterns start to seem repetitious, no matter how enthusiastically the San Francisco Opera Dance Corps performs them. As for the overall direction by stage director Francesca Zambello, it is solid and generally lively, making for fine entertainment. The solos, ensembles, and larger choral scenes generally mesh well, as is important for the dramatic effect of Show Boat. The splashiness seems overdone at times, almost veering into triviality here and there, but that is arguably an effective way to prevent the production from becoming too gloomy – even if the approach creaks a bit.

     The singing and acting here are where matters do creak. There is considerable dialogue in Show Boat, as in the operetta form and the Singspiel before it – but here the area mikes used to amplify the words do their job with varying levels of effectiveness. The miking is not a benefit to the singing, either. Bass Morris Robinson, the emotional heart of the work, brings barely controlled anger and a deeply moving sense of acceptance with forbearance to Ol’ Man River, making the river’s indifference to the petty fates of those plying their trade upon its waters the anchor of the entire production. And baritone Michael Todd Simpson, whose role is normally sung by a tenor, makes a fine flawed hero, his voice firm and full and melding elements of operatic and Broadway style, his untrustworthy character both realistic and overdone in an appealing way. Also highly engaging is Angela Renée Simpson, notably when singing Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’.

     Other singers, though, are not at this level. Patricia Racette is disappointing as Julie, victimized by a charge of miscegenation: her two big numbers, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man in Act I and Bill in Act II, are stiffly sung and have far too much vibrato. Kirsten Wyatt as Ellie Mae Chipley is too far on the lighthearted side to be fully effective. And as Magnolia Hawks, Heidi Stober projects a remote, almost chilly personality, and her acting is more posed than poised – she is distanced from the other characters and thus from the audience.

     The chance to see Show Boat performed in an operatic setting by a first-class American opera troupe is a welcome one, and the gravitas of the show’s themes is certainly communicated well in this production – although the DVD’s bow to political correctness in a note that “this production contains occasional explicit racial language” is simply dumb. Half an hour of interviews with performers is included on the recording, making for a thorough vision both of Show Boat as a stage work and Show Boat as a period piece that nevertheless speaks to concerns that have persisted into the 21st century. This is a substantial work that showed how far Broadway could go in exploring significant societal issues if it so chose. Like Lehár’s later operettas, it brought depth to a field that had almost always been pleasantly shallow before: it seems altogether fitting that the primary image of Show Boat is that of an ancient and powerful, if ultimately indifferent, river.

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