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Lyric Opera delivers a perfectly realized ‘Show Boat' for the ages

From left: Angela Renee Simpson (as Queenie), Morris Robinson (as Joe), Ashley Brown (as Magnolia Hawks Ravenal) and Alyson Cambridge (as Julie LaVerne) rehearse a scene during the piano run-through of Show Boat Sunday February 5, 2012 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. | TOM CRUZE~Sun-Times

Three years ago, Francesca Zambello’s stunning version of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s first production of “Porgy and Bess” opened just days after Americans elected their first African-American president.

Sunday afternoon, on Lincoln’s birthday, Zambello gave Lyric another historic American work with large debts to and depictions of the black experience, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Show Boat.” This revolutionary 1927 work helped make the landmark 1935 Gershwins/Heyward “Porgy” possible, turned our musical theater on its head and transformed opera and operetta traditions for American audiences and performers.

For Lyric, Zambello has reconnected “Show Boat” with its operatic kin and full orchestra, gone deeply and with great knowledge and respect into the stories and context of the show’s black and mixed-race characters and brought together trained opera singers, musical theater performers and stage actors in a strongly braided cord. She’s perfectly cast an ensemble across the board to perform some of the most enduring songs and theater music ever written.

As with “Porgy,” Zambello, artistic director of the Glimmerglass Festival who started her career as an intern and then assistant director at Lyric in the early 1980s under the late Ardis Krainik, has been working with “Show Boat” in various forms for years to develop a clear and cohesive presentation of a 40-year survey of the lives of traveling show people. All orchestrations, including banjo and acoustic guitar, are those of the great Robert Russell Bennett, who created the orchestral sound for the original 1927 production as well as its 1946 revival.

As the jovial Captain Andy Hawks and his strong-willed wife Parthy, proprietors of the Mississippi River boat the Cotton Blossom, infectious Chicago stage veterans Ross Lehman and Cindy Gold provide a connecting line and a theatrical embrace to the stories of race prejudice, family abandonment and alcoholism that the musical presents fairly unflinchingly, particularly for its ’20s setting.

Working with Zambello and her expert “Porgy” colleague conductor John DeMain, opera singers baritone Nathan Gunn (as riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal), soprano Alyson Cambridge (the heartbreakingly tragic mixed-race Julie LaVerne), dramatic soprano Angela Renee Simpson (in a fully realized Lyric debut as boat matriarch Queenie) and dark-as-night-voiced bass Morris Robinson (as Joe, also debuting here) sing with a touching realism and personal connection. Gunn manages to balance the smooth surface and fearful interior of Ravenal, while Cambridge knows that her two songs define Julie, and she delivers them with many layers. Broadway star Ashley Brown (as the un ­expected protagonist Magnolia Hawks), along with Ericka Mac and Bernie Yvon (as the eventual song-and-dance duo Ellie and Frank), rise to the demands of the opera house.

The score of course holds a string of gems, standard and lesser-known, starting with “Ol’ Man River,” followed by “Make Believe,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’,” “You Are Love,” “Why Do I Love You,” “Bill” (based on a number Kern wrote in 1918 with P.G. Wodehouse), “Hey, Fellah!” and many evocative reprises. DeMain and Zambello open up the songs and connect them at every moment to the full score and stage action so the integration of the whole musical becomes more clear than I’ve ever heard it. At three hours, including a half-hour intermission, it’s not a minute too long.

Two full choruses, one black, one white, superbly directed by Michael Black, and similar pairs of dance lines and groups of children mean that up to 80 people fill Peter J. Davison’s fully suggestive sets, lit by Mark McCullough. Paul Tazewell’s glove-fitting period costumes are alone worth the price of admission. (All three designers return from the winning “Porgy” team.) Debuting choreographer Michele Lynch has the period numbers and moves down. After some initial imbalances, Mark Grey’s sound enhancement made everything work in the giant Civic Opera House.

Opera lovers will see that “Show Boat” belongs in the repertory. Musical fans will see how such a work should be done. Young people will learn their musical and social history. No one should miss it.

Andrew Patner is the critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).