The set-up: As soon as the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II musical adaptation of Edna Ferber's best seller Show Boat premiered on Broadway in 1927, American musical theater grew up. Overnight, song and dance turned into art.
No longer were shows destined to be fantasy romances set in make-believe Ruritania or old Heidelberg; or sophisticated topical revues interspersed with jugglers, leggy semi-nude chorines, and a contemporary score that was there only to supply a hit tune.
Ferber's epic tale spans 50 years of American show biz 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. It's all in the details and frame of mind.
Houston Grand Opera's production, in cooperation with Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, and San Francisco Opera, is colossally disappointing.
The execution: 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, the real star of the show, is a flimsy, minimalist gazebo. There's not a paddlewheel in sight, except for the colorful red section glimpsed on the show curtain. Even with its tiered three-stories, 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, which nicely detail five decades of changing fashion, are bright and pretty, but look as if they've arrived fresh and new from the wardrobe department. The ragged work clothes of the black laborers on the levee, those who in Hammerstein's stinging, redolent "Ol' Man River" lyrics "sweat and strain, body all achin' and wracked with pain," have never seen so much as a dab of Mississippi mud.
Other than the enveloping evening glow of twilight near the work's end, Mark McCullough's lighting is just as cheery and bright. There's 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. Kaiser seems uncomfortable throughout, never catching Gaylord's romantic spark of devilry. He also has trouble squarely landing Kern's high notes. Later, when he abandons her in Chicago after a rash of gambling debts, we hardly miss him since he's never really been here.
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, "Nobody Else but Me," 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 in the nightclub 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 on stage 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, where black and white actors rarely performed 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-count husband Joe for always shirking work, but comforting the showfolk when times get tough. Her "Queenie's Ballyhoo," where 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' tempi throughout are rather stately, even in the jazz numbers. And no one is helped by the plodding choreography by Michele Lynch. There's not much excitement to any of her dances, although the show allows multiple opportunities to showcase changing dance styles through the decades.)
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. Robinson has a fathoms-deep voice, but Zambello's staging is perfunctory, and Robinson 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.
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Lara Teeter, as the irrepressible Cap'n Andy, Magnolia's father and 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 when he finishes the interrupted showboat's melodrama as a one-man performance. Cheryl Parrish, as Andy's battleaxe wife Parthy, gives her all the flint needed. Although it's a one-note role, she plays it with uncompromising steel.
The secondary characters of Ellie May and Frank, the showboat's feisty comedy duo, are livened up considerably by Lauren Snouffer and Tye Blue. Snouffer nails the great comedy song "Life Upon the Wicked Stage," which is a precursor of sorts to Oklahoma's Ado Annie's "I Cain't Say No;" while Blue gets to buck-and-wing impressively during Magnolia's "rag it" up-tempo audition piece at the Trocadero. As Julie's husband Steve, who shockingly drinks a few drops of Julie's blood to defy the racist marriage laws of Mississippi, David Matranga exudes polish and charm, along with the outrage. Later he shows up as Max, the Trocadero's harried manager, who Hammerstein modeled after Showboat's legendary producer Flo Ziegfeld.
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. The verdict: 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.
The classic Kern/Hammerstein musical, presented by Houston Grand Opera, runs through February 9 at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Purchase tickets online at houstongrandopera.org or call 713-228-OPERA (6737). $33-$325.