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Showboat As soon as the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II musical adaptation of Edna Ferber's best-seller premiered on Broadway in 1927, American musical theater grew up. Overnight, song and dance turned into art. Ferber's epic tale spans 50 years of American showbiz and covers such adult subjects as race, miscegenation and single motherhood. Turning these mature subjects into a musical was courageous as well as inspired. The impact was colossal. Every musical ever since owes its existence to Showboat. This seminal work made it acceptable for a musical to be serious and still have a kick line. Houston Grand Opera's production is colossally disappointing. No matter how filled the stage becomes, this grand musical is swallowed in the cavernous Wortham. The whole enterprise lacks substance, with the sets by Peter Davison looking sketchy if not meager. The iconic Cotton Blossom is a flimsy, minimalist gazebo that wouldn't look out of place in a small town's center square, suitable for a band concert. Paul Tazewell's period costumes, bright and pretty, look as if they've arrived fresh and new from the wardrobe department and have never seen a dab of Mississippi mud. There's lots of movement in director Francesca Zambello's staging, but little life. There's no chemistry between leads Magnolia (Sasha Cooke) and love-at-first-sight Gaylord (Joseph Kaiser), the ne'er-do-well river gambler. Kaiser seems uncomfortable throughout, never catching Gaylord's romantic spark of devilry. Cooke has the best voice, full of burnished tone and operatic heft, but it's too mature for teenager Magnolia in the early scenes and isn't agile enough to sound convincing in the Charleston number when Magnolia's become a certifiable Broadway star and hoofs with her chorus boys. Julie, the biracial, hard-drinking star of the showboat, is the show's meatiest role. Melody Moore, with an appealing and rich, smoky soprano, sings her two standards, "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and the classic "Bill," with real heart. Marietta Simpson makes a lively Queenie, snipping at no-account husband Joe (Morris Robinson) for always shirking work, but comforting the showfolk when times get tough. Her "Queenie's Ballyhoo," in which she wrangles up the blacks to fill the showboat, is a highpoint, although it's not nearly as zippy as it should be. (Maestro Patrick Summers's tempi throughout are rather stately.) Robinson gets the best song in the show, perhaps the best number in any show — "Ol' Man River." This iconic song never loses its power, but Robinson's fathoms-deep voice never mines much feeling out of it. The plodding nature is enlivened by Lauren Snouffer and Tye Blue, who play secondary characters Ellie May and Frank, the showboat's feisty comedy duo. Both black and white choruses resound with powerful harmonies, but often the lyrics turn to mush. If it weren't for the fact that the songs are so universally known, we'd ask for surtitles. Even with its large cast, the HGO production is slight and pinched. They've succeeded in making this monument in American theater inconsequential. Through February 9. 501 Texas. 713-228-6737. — DLG

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