This Boat Still Floats
The San Francisco Opera production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat (filmed live on the stage) has just been released on EuroArts DVD 2059688 and BluRay. The cast includes: Heidi Stober, Michael Todd Simpson, Bill Irwin, Patricia Racette, Morris Robinson, Angela Renee Simpson and Harriet Harris. The stage director is Francesca Zambello and the conductor is John DeMain.
Over two decades ago I was fortunate enough to see the Show Boat done by Opera North in collaboration with the RSC that docked at the Palladium and toured the UK.
It was impeccably cast; the pit band was amplified and was using the brilliant original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennet; it not only restored material that had not been heard since the 1928 Broadway version, it interpolated numbers from later revivals, including the novelty number “Ah Still Suits Me” written for Paul Robeson and Hattie MacDaniel to sing in the 1936 film. I have yet to see anything to equal it for justifying Show Boat’s reputation as the true grandfather of American music theatre—until now. Essentially, the new EuroArts DVD and BluRay from the San Francisco Opera production (also acclaimed in Chicago and Houston) is both iconic and also a vivid record of a greatly theatrical, entertaining and moving performance. Director Francesca Zambello has achieved pretty nearly what Ian Judge and his team did in that legendary production from Leeds to enflame a new generation of theatregoers.
The cast is a mixture of operatically trained singers who can act and Broadway hoofers or comedians who can belt, with chorus and the dancers really pitching in. The acting is sometimes suitably tongue-in-cheek, early-20th-century “mellerdrammer”, at other times straightforward and moving. Every musical number carries the weight it should, advances the plot or our understanding of character, and appeals directly to our emotions. When Heidi Stober as Magnolia and Michael Todd Simpson as Gaylord Ravenal sing “You Are Love”, you believe it with all your heart. When Morris Robinson sings “Ol’ Man River” and is joined by the chorus of men who tote those barges and heave those bales, you feel their pain, how limited their lives and opportunities are and cannot avoid thinking about the whole history of slavery and its aftermath in the United States. Those are big claims, perhaps; but it is a big, varied and allusive show and the music is so superb that one has to be careful not be so overwhelmed by it that Oscar Hammerstein II gets the credit he deserves for his strong book and lyrics.
By and large, Zambello avoids the sentimentality that often mars Show Boat revivals and goes for real feeling and serious engagement with a plot that involves addiction to gambling and alcohol, miscegenation in a racist and bigoted society, sexual harassment and bullying, and the abandonment of a wife and child. She also understands the humour, not least in the lovely number “Life Upon the Wicked Stage”. She also appreciates the sheer gut reactions demanded by the big moments and big numbers. Her approach is both superbly intelligent and responsive to all the nuances of the piece.
This Show Boat is big also in terms of production values, achieving the spectacle that perhaps only an opera company —with enough resources to field two chorus and dance groups (one African-American, the other Caucasian)—can in these financially constrained days. The stories of the various couples balance and echo each other, and every opportunity for cheeky humour is grasped as firmly as all the opportunities for the music to engage and lift your emotions.
Heidi Stober manages to convey both Magnolia’s innocence and the ultimate inner strength that will enable her to bring up her child as a single mother and become a major star. Her voice is very beautiful; she always remains in character and builds her development into a strong, no longer innocent middle-aged woman with great skill. Michael Todd Simpson conveys both Gay’s charm and his character flaws and also has the vocal chops to do full justice to Jerome Kern’s music. Patricia Racette’s Julie La Verne makes you see why the role made a star of Helen Morgan and was also one of the most appealing that Ava Gardner ever undertook. Angela Renée Simpson is outstanding as Queenie and has had restored to her character “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’” and “Hey, Fellah!”, both of which are important to the drama. The voice and demeanour of Morris Robinson as Joe have real gravitas (he’s excellent in his comic moments, too); and the roles of Ellie Mae Chipley and Frank Schultz sparkle convincingly with the talents of Kirsten Wyatt and John Bolton. It only remains to besaid that Bill Irwin is immensely
appealing as Cap’n Andy Hawks and that Harriet Harris’s Parthy Ann Hawks is a treasure, offering real balance to the singing parts. Michele Lynch has created time-sensitive choreography that takes you from the vaudeville turns of 1887 to the jazzy Charleston of 1927 as the story traverses forty years of American history; the set design by Peter J. Davison and Costume Design by Paul Tazewell are just as apt and evocative.
In sum, this is about as perfectly realized a version of the iconic Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II landmark as could be desired, and I am not even prepared to quibble about which other numbers should have been included. John DeMain has been a long-time champion of this and of Porgy and Bess for fully committed performances by opera companies, and his mastery of and sympathy with every nuance of the lyricism and wit of the score is a constant pleasure. The show has been beautifully filmed by Frank Zamacona for the screen.
In my opinion this is, therefore, a DVD that you need to have in your collection to enjoy again and again. If you love music theatre, it will confirm your addiction; and if you are not sure about this genre, this staging, this cast and this team of people on and off the stage will definitely convince you.
This Show Boat also makes a powerful case for how well top-level productions filmed from the stage not only work as entertainment but also convey the sense of occasion and preserve what otherwise would be an ephemeral event. We are very fortunate these days, I think, to see fine performances from anywhere in the world that otherwise we would only know from hearsay or still photographs.
Finally, let us all be grateful to Edna Ferber for realizing in 1927 that the story of the showboats of the Mississippi and the transformation of American culture was one that should be preserved; and to Kern and Hammerstein for honouring the novel and its background with an interpretation that looks at the whole phenomenon of entertainment and American society with real acuity, some irony and profound empathy for its complexities. They were pioneers.