Thursday, February 23, 2012

'Show Boat' Rolls Along Splendidly in Opera Voyage -- Opera / Theater Review

Photo Credit: Alex Garcia / Chicago Tribune
Opera / Theater Review

Show Boat
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Thru March 17

Originally produced on Broadway in 1927 and oft cited as the show that redefined musical theater, Show Boat is the oldest of the great musicals I feel I should see--excluding the Gilbert & Sullivan works more commonly classified as light opera--and likely the most celebrated of those that, until Wednesday night, I never had.

Even without a point of comparison, the glorious new production by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, under the direction of renowned director Francesca Zambello, provided an undoubtedy robust introduction to the watershed work composed by Jerome Kern with book & lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II (based on a novel by Edna Ferber).

In the Director's Note in the program, Zambello states that without Show Boat, which she dubs "the beginning of our musical theater history," we could not have "found a bridge from opera to our own American art form." She goes on to explain that she considers this production innovative for the way it marries "the worlds of opera singers, musical theater performers and dramatic actors."

Noted opera baritone Nathan Gunn plays the male lead, Gaylord Ravenal, bass Morris Robinson is Joe--he does a fabulous rendition of "Old Man River"--soprano Alyson Cambridge is Julie and another soprano, Angela Renee Simpson plays Queenie. The female lead, Magnolia Hawks, is played by Ashley Brown, best known for playing Mary Poppins on Broadway (and in Chicago on the first national tour). She is joined by a number of performers I've often seen on Chicago theatrical stages, including Ross Lehman (Captain Andy), Cindy Gold (Parthy), Bernie Yvon (Frank) and Ericka Mac (Ellie May).

As I've explained in reviews of more traditional operas I've seen--such as this one; I've attended over 40--I very much appreciate and admire the art form, but have never come to love it or "feel it" the way I do with Broadway (or rock, for that matter). Thus, while respecting longtime Lyric patrons who may wonder why one of the world's most esteemed opera companies is presenting a "musical," I am far from a purist who disdains the notion and instead very much endorse it.

This was my first trip to the Civic Opera House this season and while realizing that there are many other venues around town where one can see musicals, yet only a very few that present opera, in the name of marketing the operatic form to a wider--and younger--audience, I would fully be in favor of expanding what gets presented as an "opera production."

It's hard to believe that it's been 10 years since I saw a wonderful production of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd at the Lyric and that Show Boat is the first true musical they've done since. (They did do Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance some years back.) Having just seen South Pacific last week as a touring Broadway production, that's just one of the obvious musicals ready for an opera production; I'd also strongly suggest the Lyric do Les Miserables.

That said, while it was largely inconsequential to my enjoyment of a well-staged (though the sets weren't quite astonishing), exquisitely costumed and wonderfully sung performance, it seemed slightly strange for many of the songs to be sung in operatic voices yet for others not to be--most notably Magnolia's numbers sung by Brown, who has a great voice but isn't an opera singer.

There's traditionally a difference between "opera singing" and "Broadway singing" and there's an argument to be made for either one holding forth when an opera company stages a Broadway show. But the hybrid, while never really unpleasant, just seemed a bit curious.

Nonetheless, unless you're an opera lover who only loves the classics by Mozart, Verdi, Puccini and the like, there's no reason not to take in this ebullient production of a legendary American creation--dealing with racial issues, including miscegenation, but also offering much literal and figurative bi-racial harmony, Show Boat was decades ahead of its time in many regards--and certainly shouldn't be missed if you're a musical theater lover.

I was going to say that tickets start at just $34 for weeknight performances, but the Lyric may be utilizing a dynamic pricing model as in checking on tickets for next Tuesday night, seats at the back of the upper balcony (for which I paid $34) now seem to be $54. (You can check tickets here; scroll to the bottom)

Photo Credit: Dan Rest
According to Wikipedia, Show Boat was last revived on Broadway in 1994, followed by a tour that landed at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre for an extended run in 1996. I wasn't as keyed into musicals at that point and didn't attend, but since becoming an ardent theatergoer in 2000, I haven't heretofore noticed any local opportunities to see the show, at any level. With a huge cast, lush orchestral score and the requirement of something approximating a riverboat, this can't be an easy or inexpensive show to produce.

All the more reason this unique production--with a full opera orchestra conducted by John DeMain and dozens of performers on stage combining to delight on the show's buoyant chorus numbers as well as beautiful ballads such as "Make Believe," "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" and "Bill"--shouldn't be missed as it rolls alongside the Chicago River. (Act II takes place mostly in Chicago and ends in 1927, which only adds to the charm of seeing Show Boat in the opera house, which was built just 2 years later.)

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