Show Boat: Music and Message
Reviewed by Ed Cloos
Seen August 11, 2019
Show Boat, the Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II musical theater staple, is closing in on 100 years old, and it still is, in many ways, a commentary on current social issues. I've been waiting to see the Francesca Zambello interpretation since I first heard a broadcast of its initial appearance at Lyric Opera of Chicago. That was seven years ago. It was worth the wait.
A show with songs like Old Man River, We Could Make Believe and Why Do I Love You?, could never be all bad (although we may have forgotten where they came from). But when fake southern accents are involved, it can come close. What I heard in the broadcast seemed really to be like an opera.
The show is set in the late 1800s when marriage between people of different races, really just black and white, was illegal. Anti-miscegenation laws continued in some states long after that, but it is no longer against the law anywhere. That doesn't mean it is accepted everywhere. Racism is alive and well in America.
Although it is musical theater through and through, it has all the character of opera, as pretty much everything Hammerstein wrote does.
Glimmerglass presented the same production, with a different cast, but the same sets and costumes. Peter Davison is set designer and Paul Tazewell is costumer designer. James Lowe conducted, but John DeMain remained as musical supervisor. Reviews were great in Chicago, but at least one critic complained that the sets weren't elaborate enough for big-time Lyric—more suited to regional companies. Well, yes. Ones like Glimmerglass.
For me a key is a strong Captain Andy, he runs the Mississippi River showboat. Lara Teeter, an Actors Equity actor, was inventive, versatile, and in all respects held everything together and kept it moving. He wasn't the original, but he was more than fine. And he was entertaining in his own right.
The Cotton Blossom show had no trouble in the North, but when it docked in Natchez, Mississippi, there was plenty. Julie, the leading lady, is a negro (remember, “African-American” hadn't been coined yet). She's married to Steve, the company's leading man, but Pete, the boat's engineer, has designs on her. She spurns his advances, and he and Steve come to blows. Andy fires Pete, but he continues to cause trouble when he tells the local sheriff that a negro woman is married to a white man on board.
Getting word of this, Steve tries to get around the law by cutting his and Julie's fingers, mixing a little blood and sucking some. A drop of negro blood was said to make a person legally negro. That avoided immediate arrest, but they were ordered out of town by nightfall. The “opera” begins there.
The captain's daughter, Magnolia, has been following the show, knows all Julie's songs, and Julie is her best friend. Magnolia (Lauren Shouffer), known throughout the rest of the show as Nola, also has met on the dock a handsome stranger, named Gaylord Ravenal, he isn't really a singer or actor—turns out he's a river gambler—but he's fast learner.
They spontaneously sing We Could Make Believe (I love you), one of the musical's enduring hits. So they become the leads for the rest of the tour. They also actually fall in love and are married, against the wishes Parthy Ann Hawks, her mother.
The couple soon has a daughter, Kim, who quickly is old enough to sing Why Do I Love You?” together. Things move fast in musical theater. They settle in Chicago, and the show becomes a kind of melodrama from there, a melodrama that covers 40 years, but not before a stirring rendition of Ol' Man River by Justin Hopkins, a guest artist, as Joe, while on the Cotton Blossom. (I'm not clear on Joe's role on the showboat.)
Production Photos copyright Karli Cadel and Connor Lange.
James Lowe, Conductor
Francesca Zambello, Director
E. Loren Meeker, Co-Director
Eric Sean Fogel, Choreographer
John DeMain, Musical Supervisor
Peter J. Davison, Set Designer
Paul Tazewell, Costume Designer
Loren Shaw, Associate Costume Designer
Mark McCullough, Lighting Designer
Samantha M. Wootten, Hair and Makeup Designer
Kelley Rourke, Projected Titles