De mis’ry’s comin’ aroun’,
We knows it’s comin’ aroun’
Don’t know to who.
I knows misery’s near,
I don’t know why it is here,
Don’t know for who,
Don’t know for why,
Why dat misery’s near.
No mo’ gin, no mo’ rum,
Oh, de misery’s done come!
—“Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’,” Show Boat
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Show Boat. It’s not a musical I knew at all beyond the classic “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” but, even though I would love for the San Francisco Opera to take on lighter fare more regularly, especially Gilbert & Sullivan, I didn’t know how I felt about actual Broadway musicals, in this case probably the original Broadway musical, written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II in 1927.
Consider me converted, because, while there was lots of talk of misery, I found it delightful.
A co-production with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, and Houston Grand Opera, the lavish production, directed by Francesca Zambello, is sure to be in the running for a few of my end-of-the-year Figaros, most notably for its costumes, which were designed by Paul Tazewell. Note: The coat porn alone makes this worth the trip.
The orchestra sounded great under John DeMain. It’s rare that I comment on the orchestra at the opera (unless, of course, there is solo clarinet action), but the music here really captured me. This may be because today’s musicals have such small orchestras that it stood out; I’m not sure, but it certainly helped me get into the spirit of the production.
That spirit is perfect for the summer season, as the look and sound of this Show Boat is so intensely American, with a palette straight out of a Fourth of July picnic and a musical journey that moves effortlessly from spirituals to vaudeville to pop ballads and jazz.
Unfortunately, the story of Show Boat is rather uneven and, frankly, falls apart in the second act, as the story leaves the Deep South for the big city (Chicago and New York) and swings from the late nineteenth century to the 1920s. While we eventually return to the South and the eponymous show boat, it is too little, too late, for an all-too-abrupt ending.
But the singing was stellar, especially from Heidi Stober as ingénue Magnolia Hawks, the daughter of Cap’n Andy (a delicious physical performance by Bill Irwin), Angela Renée Simpson as Queenie, and John Bolton as Frank, one half of the vaudeville duo of Schultz and Schultz. Even ten-year-old Carmen Steele, who played Magnolia’s young daughter Kim, sang her small part on “Why Do I Love You?” very sweetly. Michael Todd Simpson, as inveterate gambler Gaylord Ravenal, took a while to warm up, but grew on me as the night went on.
The ever-present Patricia Racette plays Julie La Verne (a bi-racial woman, married to a white man and “passing” for white), a smaller role than I realized, but she delivers on “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and especially “Bill.”
But the revelation here was Morris Robinson as Queenie’s husband Joe. When I saw him in Don Giovanni I wasn’t impressed, but here he is a highlight, delivering the solo of the evening on “Ol’ Man River.”
There are six more performances of Show Boat at the War Memorial Opera House on June 19, 22, 26, 28 and July 1 and 2. Catch it if you can.