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, Showboat turned song and dance into art.
No longer were musical shows destined to be fantasy romances set in make-believe Ruritania or old Heidelberg, or sophisticated topical revues interspersed with jugglers, leggy seminude chorines and a contemporary score that was there only to supply a hit tune.
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, in cooperation with Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera and San Francisco Opera, 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 real star of the show, the iconic Cotton Blossom, is a flimsy, minimalist gazebo without a paddlewheel in sight. This chintzy showboat 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 from the wardrobe department, never having seen a dab of Mississippi mud. Mark McCullough's lighting is just as cheery and bright, with hardly an ounce of atmosphere. With this ersatz musical comedy wash, we might as well be in Ruritania.
There's lots of movement in director Francesca Zambello's staging, but little life. It's not the direction that lacks vigor, it's the performances. There's no chemistry between leads Magnolia (Sasha Cooke) and love-at-first-sight Gaylord (Joseph Kaiser), the ne'er-do-well river gambler. When Gaylord abandons Magnolia and young daughter in Chicago after a rash of gambling debts, we hardly miss him since he's never really been here. Uncomfortable in a miscast role, Kaiser never catches Gaylord's romantic spark of devilry. He also has trouble squarely landing Kern's high notes. Cooke has the best voice, full of burnished tone and operatic mezzo 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, made iconic through the performance of incandescent Helen Morgan, the first Julie. 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. While Zambello distracts us with unnecessary background action at the beginning of "Bill," Moore felicitously anchors our gaze with a simple, elegant rendition. Sometimes there's nothing more effective onstage than one person beautifully putting over a song.
Queenie and Joe (Marietta Simpson and Morris Robinson) are the lead black couple, a truly revolutionary change on Broadway in 1927, when black and white actors rarely performed together on the same stage. (Inconceivable as it may seem today, what with the urbanity and sophistication of Showboat's creators, at the premiere run and its 1932 revival, Queenie was played in blackface by white actress Tess Gardella, who billed herself as Aunt Jemima.) Simpson is a lively Queenie, snipping at no-account husband Joe for always shirking work, but comforting the showfolk when times get tough. "Queenie's Ballyhoo," where she wrangles up blacks to fill the showboat, is a high point, although it's not nearly as zippy as it should be. (Maestro Patrick Summers's tempi throughout are rather stately, even in the jazz numbers. And Michele Lynch's plodding choreography helps no one. Although the show allows multiple opportunities to showcase changing dance styles through the decades, there's not much excitement to any of her dances.)
Robinson gets the best song in the show, perhaps the best song in any show — "Ol' Man River." This iconic hymn never loses its power. Robinson has a fathoms-deep voice, but under Zambello's perfunctory staging, he doesn't mine much feeling out of it. Nevertheless, the song is one of mankind's most glorious creations, and when Robinson is joined in the reprise by the male chorus, the heavens open.
Lara Teeter, as the irrepressible Cap'n Andy, titular head of this showbiz family, has the loose limbs of a Ray Bolger and enough comic timing to put over the show's classic comedy routine in which he finishes the interrupted showboat's melodrama as a one-man performance. Cheryl Parrish, as Andy's battleaxe wife Parthy, plays this one-note role with uncompromising comic steel.
The secondary characters of Ellie May and Frank, the showboat's feisty comedy duo, are given considerable life by Lauren Snouffer and Tye Blue. Snouffer nails the great comedy song "Life Upon the Wicked Stage," while Blue gets to buck-and-wing impressively during Magnolia's "rag it" audition piece at the Trocadero. David Matranga exudes polish and charm, along with appropriate outrage, as Julie's husband Steve, who shockingly drinks a few drops of Julie's blood to defy the racist marriage laws of Mississippi.
Both black and white choruses resound with power, 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.
Without question, Showboat is a monument in American theater, our first great musical. Even with its large cast, the HGO production is slight and pinched. They've succeeded in making this monument insignificant.
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