BWW Reviews: Houston Grand Opera's Entertaining SHOW BOAT Dazzles and Delights
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by David Clarke
Houston Grand Opera opened their Winter Repertory offerings with an impressive and rousing production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's iconic book musical SHOW BOAT. The musical historically changed the face of American Musical Theatre and introduced a genre of entertainment that many feel OKLAHOMA perfected and solidified. Despite it's classification as a musical, the show's score is incredibly operatic and requires many classically trained voices to effectively pull off a production.
Spanning from 1887 to 1927, SHOW BOAT follows the trials and eventual successes of Magnolia "Nolie" Hawks, daughter of Cap'n Andy Hawks of the Cotton Blossom show boat. The plot centers on her torrid love affair with the river gambler Gaylord Ravenal, who leaves Nolie and their daughter high-and-dry in Chicago after his gambling debts catch up to him. In his absence, Nolie goes on to discover her own talents and becomes a leading lady on Broadway. Along the way, the musical deals with racism and the contemporary public's attitudes towards interracial relationships.
Direction by Francesca Zambello brings enchanting life to the familiar story. Each of her leads embodies a character that is distinctive and journeys on their own unique and individual arcs, bringing vivacity into the nearly 86-year-old musical. Additionally, Francesca Zambello is presenting the musical in a similar fashion as the 1988 Studio Cast Recording does, making no edits to language that some may deem objectionable. The audience will be realistically exposed to the N-word, as it was used historically on the Mississippi River. Under Francesca Zambello's reigns the plot moves crisply, keeping the audience engaged in the action of the show whether it is their first experience of 1,000th with the material.
Michele Lynch's choreography is stunning, exhilarating, and captivating. She expertly works around the period costumes of the 1880s through the 1920s to create dance moments that are thrilling and wholly entertaining. Her best examples of stunning dance work are any of the times that the six featured (three white and three African-American) couples get to showcase their skill and talent.
As conducted by Patrick Summers, the opening night performance clipped along at a great pace. The score was beautifully played and sung, except for the opening of the overture. The orchestra started at differing tempos, creating a discordant and tinny sound. With a packed house, Patrick Summers quickly cut the orchestra off and restarted them, allowing the instrumentalists to showcase their own aptitude in playing the lush and harmonious music of Jerome Kern.
Sasha Cooke's Magnolia "Nolie" Hawks is sweet and loveable from beginning to end. Her arc from naïve and protected teenager to self-realized Broadway starlet is entirely believable and a joy to watch. Sasha Cooke's soprano instrument is breathtakingly beautiful, lending a decidedly and much appreciated operatic tonality to her performance. She shines magnificently on "You Are Love" and "Nobody Else But Me."
Joseph Kaiser adroitly captures the handsome, charming, snake oil persona of Gaylord Ravenal, ensuring that the audience falls for him almost as much as Magnolia does, even though we know we should be more wary of him. His voice soars through the air and delights on "Who Cares if My Boat Goes Upstream" and the reprise of "You Are Love."
Lara Teeter's Cap'n Andy is a quintessential portrait of a charismatic and magnanimous persona. He pristinely captures the audience's attention with flawless dance moves, wit, and a showman's pizzazz. Whether signing, dancing, or singing and dancing, Lara Teeter is completely entertaining and enthralls the audience with ease. Every high-energy line, song, and step radiates and resonates with complete and utter star quality.
Song and dance man Frank Schultz is perfectly played, sung, and danced by the talented and affable Houston area favorite Tye Blue. Every moment of Tye Blue's incredible and splendid performance smacks of boundless charisma and reverberates with fascinating precision. No step or note is out place, creating a performance that comfortably finds a place in the heart of the audience and will be cherished for years to come. Moreover, Tye Blue's performance on "I Might Fall Back on You" is simply spellbinding.
Lauren Snouffer plays Ellie May Chipley with poise and vivacious life. Lauren Snouffer's dancing and singing only match her animated and sprightly personality, as she brings whimsical and enthralling life to Ellie May Chipley. She sparkles and dazzles in her performances of "Life on the Wicked Stage" and "I Might Fall Back on You."
Marietta Simpson breathes brilliant life into Queenie, an African-American woman that society wants to oppress despite her ability to stand up for herself. At the top of the show she unabashedly talks back to Pete and challenges his superiority over her, which sets into motion the major conflict of the first act. This trait continues, and is even peppered with humor as she constantly derides her husband for being "lazy" and "shiftless." Marietta Simpson's singing on numbers like "Mis'ry's Comin' Round" and "Queenie's Ballyhoo" is sublimely evocative and emotionally stirring. Her unwavering voice gleams with lustrous control and luxurious emotional depth.
As Joe, Morris Robinson awes and electrifies the audience. His rendition of the "Ol' Man River" solo brought the opening night audience to show-stopping applause that lasted for about five minutes. The male African-American chorus joined in with him to finish the song after the applause break, and together they earned another five minutes of show-stopping applause. Morris Robinson's rich, deep bass carries through the auditorium with ease and is superbly expressive and emotionally gripping. His Joe, usually providing comic relief as Queenie castigates him for being lackadaisical really bares his soul with "Ol' Man River" and each of its reprises.
Melody Moore plays and sings Julie LaVerne with heart and grace. The audience reels for her when she decides to leave the Cotton Blossom, and our hearts break when she sneaks out of the Trocadero so Magnoila and Frank won't see her there. Her vocal skill on "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and "Bill" is simply lovely.
David Matranga effortlessly wins the audience over as the dashing, daring, and brave Steve Baker in the first act, but his second act Max is slimy and unlikeable. These diverse approaches to characterization help the audience to not recognize that he is playing two characters, while ensuring that his performances are dynamic and gratifying.
The rest of the cast and large ensemble mesmerize the audience as well. Each does their duty to ensure that the show's story is realistically, wondrously, and beautifully told and sung.
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.