Reviewed by Judy Richter
Although "Show Boat" has generally been considered a pioneering work of the American musical theater, it has an operatic scope. The San Francisco Opera makes that point in its lavish company premiere of the 1927 work that composer Jerome Kern and lyricist-author Oscar Hammerstein II based on a novel by American Edna Ferber.
Many of its songs are familiar to American audiences, but they sound better with operatic voices. As soon as sonorous bass Morris Robinson starts singing one of those songs, "Ol' Man River," early in the show, it takes on a new resonance. Robinson plays Joe, a black worker on the Cotton Blossom, the titular show boat on the Mississippi.
Another outstanding singer is baritone Michael Todd Simpson as Gaylord Ravenal, a debonair gambler who happens upon the boat and immediately falls in love with the owner's daughter, Magnolia Hawks, played by soprano Heidi Stober. Their "Make Believe" upon meeting is another of the show's many highlights. Stober also is a talented dancer and even plays guitar in one scene.
Joe's wife, the no-nonsense Queenie, the boat's cook, is played by soprano Angela Renée Simpson.
The final singer from operatic ranks is longtime SFO and worldwide favorite, soprano Patricia Racette, who plays Julie, leading lady of the Cotton Blossom show and a close friend of Magnolia. She enlivens the stage with "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man."
Playing in two acts with a 25-minute intermission, "Show Boat" spans more than 40 years, starting in the 1880s and continuing through 1927. Paul Tazewell's colorful costumes and Michele Lynch's dynamic choreography for nearly everyone in the cast reflect the changing times and styles. Sets by Peter J. Davison take the action to Natchez, Miss., Chicago and New York City.
Others featured in the cast are rubber-legged comic actor Bill Irwin as Cap'n Andy Hawks, the boat's owner; and Harriet Harris as his dour wife, Parthy Ann. Patrick Cummings plays Julie's husband and co-star, Steve. The secondary actors in the boat's show are Ellie May Chipley (Kirsten Wyatt) and Frank Schultz (John Bolton).
John DeMain conducts the excellent orchestra and Ian Robertson's always wonderful chorus.
"Show Boat" not only examines a facet of American show business history but also looks at the toll taken by racism at the time. It's also a love story for several characters through the years.
The San Francisco Opera proves that it rightfully belongs on the operatic stage and deserves this outstanding production.
For more information, see the San Francisco Opera home page.