Should opera companies be in the business of staging musicals? Yes, I know there is a fine and arbitrary line between “opera” and the rest of “musical theater,” but I believe most people would see a difference between Parsifal and Jersey Boys without needing a PhD to parse out the grey area in between. American opera companies have delved into this breach over the years in good economic times and bad featuring works that are decidedly outside of the standard opera repertoire. The works that fall into this category do so for several reasons. They may be works whose composers have acquired a certain musical and intellectual caché, like Sondheim. Or they may be works that were composed as operas, like Porgy and Bess, but came into the world in a commercial musical theater format and then get a belated high-art make over. And then there are those works whose words and music that were so groundbreaking or that have become such staples of American culture that they achieve a status commensurate with other works typically seen on the opera stages.
Show Boat, fits into that last category. The landmark musical written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II premiered on Broadway in 1927 with an ambition and scope that belied its comparatively lower-art point of entry into the world. It changed a lot of things in American musical theater, so that it finds its way onto a traditional opera stage at the Lyric Opera of Chicago over eight decades later would stand to reason. A musical production for an opera company can be viewed as a way of filling houses and bringing in audiences that would never dream of buying a ticket to Aida. And whether or not this was a primary motivation for this current production, which will also travel to San Francisco, Washington, and Houston, it undoubtedly looks like it will be successful in doing so. The company has put together a team both onstage and off that have an excellent track record for just this kind of project. Director Francesca Zambello has brought American musicals to Glimmerglass where she is artistic director and she is no stranger to Show Boat either. She also put together a well-traveled and extremely popular production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in a similar vein that has played to sold out houses across the country. Add to her direction the musical skills of John DeMain in the pit, who also conducted a great many of those Porgy and Bess performances, and you’re clearly asking for repeated success.
And folks in Chicago have largely got what they asked for. Show Boat has been just as successful in Chicago as its predecessor due to Zambello’s remarkably unassuming, sincere staging. The material with its once radical and expansive story line about miscegenation now seems melodramatic and overly sentimental. But Zambello approaches the material with straight forward earnestness that, combined with Paul Tazewell’s candy-color costumes and Peter J. Davidson’s theme-park-ready boat and night-club sets, makes you feel like Ava Gardner is about to walk out on stage.
She doesn’t, as it turns out, but those that do have been well cast and consistently deliver performances of the very songs that make this show opera house worthy. Alyson Cambridge plays Julie LaVerne and delivers a version of “Bill” to rival any you’ve heard from Audra MacDonald or Barbara Cook. Of course, there’s “Old Man River” as well, and Morris Robinson and the chorus rescue the number from any sort of kitsch that may be kicking around in your head about it. There was plenty of sniffling in the house over this number both times it appears in the show. Angela Renée Simpson played Queenie and Broadway’s original Mary Poppins, Ashley Brown sang Magnolia both in excellent voice. And among all of this was Nathan Gunn channeling Clark Gable in style if not sound as the riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal. He, like the rest of the cast, was amplified for the dialog in the performance, which was subtle and well managed overall. (I know this throws some people into fits, but I’m not one of them if its done well like it is here.)
Whether or not bringing Show Boat to an opera stage is going to increase the size of the opera audience or create huge financial windfalls is debatable. However, it’s hard to complain much about a production done this well. And given the track record of the show and its creators so far, it appears that a lot of people will be seeing it in the coming years. There are four more performances in Chicago through March 17.