Houston, Houston Grand Opera, Musical, Show Boat, Jerome Kern, Hammerstein, Francesca Zambello
Houston Grand Opera and Mark Grey made an interesting choice regarding sound design for this production of SHOW BOAT, which ultimately hurt the show more than it helped on opening night. According to program notes, only the dialogue is slightly amplified. Sadly, even with the supposed amplification, not all of the dialogue is discernable by the audience. By the time it reached my ears in Row O of the Orchestra, some parts were so inaudible that it came across as garbled murmurs and not as spoken word. Conversely, almost all of the lyrics in solos and duets are heard perfectly; however, the lyrics sung by the large ensemble sometimes get lost in the acoustics of the Wortham's Brown Theater and melodious sounds of Jerome Kern's score. For example, as the show opens with "Niggers All Work on the Mississippi," the first line of the first stanza is perfectly heard while the following three lines sound fantastic tonally, but the lyrics are indecipherable. Creating an effective wall of vocal sound, complete with dialect coaching, that leaves some lyrics unintelligible is not necessarily a bad thing. However, because the supertitles are not used during the performance, members of the audience who are seeing SHOW BOAT for their first time, like me, are left wondering what they are missing, and those who have seen it before are upset that they must use their memory to fill in the blanks. The Sound Design element of the show is the performance's greatest flaw and biggest weakness. These decisions effectively restrain the impactful messages about racism and the reconstruction of America from fully developing and being intellectually stimulating and provocative for 2013 audiences.
Peter J. Davison's set design is truly inspired and wholly effective. The sliding panels of whitewashed wooden clapboard with logos are telling of life in Natchez around the turn of the century, creating a great picture and backdrop for the audience. His work for the Trocadero is fantastic and highly detailed. However, it is Peter J. Davidson's steel Cotton Blossom that is the star of his sets. The three-story piece is impressive and immaculately designed and decorated, appearing to be made of wood. Watching it glide across the stage, mimicking the docking of the boat at the top of the show is simply astounding. The choice of steel may seem awkward, but this boat was built to travel. It has already been used in Chicago and still has engagements in San Francisco and Washington D.C. scheduled. Likewise, kudos have to go to the people (not seen by the audience) who smoothly push the Cotton Blossom set across the stage, making it appear to be controlled mechanically and not manually. Bravo!
Paul Tazewell's Costume Design is a study in turn of the century fashions. Every piece, whether it is someone's Sunday finest or river work wear, is consummately designed and realized. Nothing looks out of place or inappropriate. My favorite designs include the flashy New Year's Eve costumes worn by Tye Blue's Frank and Lauren Snouffer's Ellie May Chipley.
Mark McCullough's Lighting Design is perfectly atmospheric and bright for the show. His best work is seen on the white backdrop that has colors fade appropriately for sunsets and sun rises. Also, his use of more dynamic color palettes during song and dance numbers compared to the more realistically lit dialogue moments does not go unnoticed or unappreciated.
Dialogue Coaching by Jim Johnson ensures that the words written by Oscar Hammerstein II are pronounced the way the author intended. Some of the dialect may sound stilted to our trained Southern ears, but Jim Johnson shows artistic integrity in preserving the show in a way that reflects its original intent compared to what a Houston audience may expect it to sound like.
Houston Grand Opera's production of SHOW BOAT is an impressive feat of theatricality and showmanship. In spite of the marring effects of the sound design and the jarring restart of the Orchestra on opening night, the performance is solidly entertaining and possesses enthralling emotional breadth. The company has pulled together a striking blend of Broadway caliber and Operatic talents, many of which are locals. The show is chock full of sumptuous star power that will astonish, regale, and completely delight audiences.
Houston Grand Opera's SHOW BOAT runs until February 9, 2013 in the Brown Theater at the Wortham Center. For more information and tickets, visit www.houstongrandopera.org or call (713) 228 - 6737.
Photos Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera. All Photos by Felix Sanchez.
Magnolia (Sasha Cooke) and Gaylord (Joseph Kaiser).
Queenie (Marietta Simpson), Joe (Morris Robinson), Magnolia (Sasha Cooke) and Julie (Melody Moore) sing "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man."
Sasha Cooke as Magnolia (center) performing in her Broadway show.
New Year's Eve at the Trocadero Club.
The crowd celebrating the wedding of Magnolia and Gaylord Ravenal.
Joe (Morris Robinson) sings "Ol' Man River."