Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Show Boat
Lyric Opera of Chicago

Also see John's reviews of Barnum and Dating Walter Dante

Ashley Brown and
Nathan Gunn

This musical, known as a seminal piece in the history of the musical theater for its advances in integration of song and story, must also be remembered as a production of Florenz Ziegfeld. Lyric Opera's new production directed by Francesca Zambello is a spectacle in the Ziegfeld tradition: gorgeous sets and costumes, two choruses (one African-American, one Caucasian), a children's chorus and dance corps, and a full orchestra in the pit. It seems everything that could have been done to make this as perfect a re-creation of the piece as originally conceived has been done.

While Show Boat may be termed the first modern musical play, it nonetheless shows its roots in European operetta, which was still popular in 1920s America, at least in the American Broadway musicals written by Show Boat's librettist Oscar Hammerstein with European composers. Yet Show Boat is a transitional work with Jerome Kern's music spanning several genres. Its duets for romantic leads Magnolia Hawks and Gaylord Ravenal ("Make Believe," "You Are Love," "Why Do I Love You?"), Gaylord's solos ("Who Cares If My Boat Goes Upstream" ("Where's the Mate for Me"), "Till Good Luck Comes My Way"), as well as choral numbers like "Cotton Blossom," and "Sports of Gay Chicago" come from operetta traditions. Others draw from blues ("Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man"), spirituals ("Ol' Man River," and "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun') and popular show tune styles of the period ("Life Upon the Wicked Stage," and "Bill"). There are some extensive book scenes, many of them comic involving the Showboat owner Captain Andy Hawks and his wife Parthy Ann, comedy numbers for cook Queenie and substantial numbers for the dance corps. Executing all these disciplines and styles—apparently Ziegfeld did not want any audience members to leave disappointed whatever their tastes—requires a range of unique talents that Lyric has impressively assembled. They've brought in opera singers alongside musical theater singer/actors and in some cases cast contrary to what might be expected given the performers' resumes.

Opera superstar baritone Nathan Gunn is Ravenal and he gives the gambler a strong sense of charisma, singing the role as powerfully and authoritatively as one could ever hope. His Magnolia is Ashley Brown, Broadway's Mary Poppins. Brown has no opera credentials listed in her bio but her soprano seems perfectly at home on the Civic Opera House stage, and not surprisingly she charmingly manages her character's transition from naïve teen to hardened middle age over the story's 40-some years. Less expected is the casting of opera's Alyson Cambridge as Julie and Angela Renee Simpson as Queenie. Cambridge's robust soprano gives a full-bodied but lively reading of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and a soulful "Bill." Ms. Simpson has all the comic skills and timing required for the role of Queenie, accepting yet impatient of her man, husband Joe. She thinks Joe doesn't do much, but he does get to sing "Ol' Man River" and, as sung by operatic bass Morris Robinson and chorus, the song is as moving as always.

Besides Ms. Brown, Zambello has dipped smartly into the world of Chicago musical theater for the comic roles of Captain Andy, Parthy, and Frank and Ellie. Ross Lehman is both frisky and droll as Andy and Cindy Gold a comically domineering Parthy Ann. Bernie Yvon and Ericka Mac are the comically clueless performers Frank and Ellie, who sell their "Goodbye, My Lady Love" song and dance duet niftily and do a great job playing bad actors. Even the dance corps includes a mix of performers from the opera and musical theater reviews, smartly executing the fresh steps of choreographer Michelle Lynch.

The physical production surrounding the performers is no less stunning. Paul Tazewell has created astounding costume designs for characters that range from poor river workers of the 1880s through flashy showboat performers and Chicago dandies at the 1893 World's Fair. Peter Davison's set includes a life-sized show boat cut out, which can rotate from a side view to head-on angles and rotate around so that its outer decks become balconies of the boat's auditorium. There are some marvelous painted backdrops as well, showing scenes of the Fair with a gigantic Ferris wheel in the foreground and a street scene of Chicago in the 1920s. Mark McCullough's lighting design casts a glowing reddish sunset among other effects. The only technical disappointment is the irritatingly tinny amplification that somewhat hinders enjoyment of the marvelous voices but also makes dialogue and lyrics muddy and frequently hard to understand (though there are supertitles for the lyrics).

Edna Thurber's 1926 novel on which this musical was based depicted poverty, miscegenation, alcoholism and gambling addiction—subjects previously unheard of in a genre which up to then was all about light entertainment and plots with little relationship to the songs. But as much credit as is given to Show Boat for its integration of a serious story with song and dance, this production reminds us that Kern, Hammerstein and Ziegfeld still gave the audience much of the pure entertainment they expected from a musical. Show Boat's songs and extended dances don't always add to plot or character development, but the piece was an important step toward musicals that would use music in the service of a story.

Show Boat is not an opera, but it benefits greatly from the talents of opera artists, and who but a major opera company would have the resources to give this piece its due? It's a musical of two or three eras ago, and especially as performed here—with broadly presentational performances and the original orchestrations from 1927—it's dated in comparison with musicals of the past 50 years. With that said, the music and the musical remain enormously enjoyable as they pass into classic status.

Show Boat will be performed through March 17, 2012 at the Civic Opera House, Chicago. For ticket information visit

Photo: Robert Kusel

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-- John Olson

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