Review: ‘Show Boat’ keeps rollin’ along in fine style in San Francisco

“Show Boat” is a great show. But does a classic 1927 Kern and Hammerstein musical belong ensconced alongside “La Traviata” and “Madama Butterfly”? San Francisco Opera thinks so.

Well, fish got to swim, birds got to fly. And someone’s got to show “Show Boat.”

In a program note by San Francisco Opera’s general director, David Gockley says Broadway can no longer afford “Show Boat,” which requires the kind of large orchestra, chorus and cast long gone from the realm of the musical. Still, if Broadway can afford “Spider-Man,” surely it can afford “Show Boat.”

More to the point, Broadway has lost the artistic ambition to mount a “Show Boat.” As Gockley also notes, “Today’s Broadway shows use microphones within an inch of their lives.” Kern wrote for real voices in a congenial acoustic.

But “Show Boat,” which raises racial and social issues never before thought possible in a Broadway musical, has another, greater claim to operatic fame. It raises musical issues maybe not now prevalent on commercially compromised Broadway but very relevant to modern musical theater.


Half a century before postmodernism, “Show Boat” showed how different musical styles and different kinds of subject matter might reflect off each other.

The San Francisco production by Francesca Zambello, conducted by John DeMain and featuring a cast drawn both from opera and Broadway, comes by way of Chicago’s Lyric Opera, Washington National Opera and Houston Grand Opera. The casts have changed, but San Francisco’s “Show Boat” boasts a certain history. It was Gockley and DeMain at Houston Grand Opera in 1982 who were originally responsible for re-creating Kern’s original score — long forgotten about in earlier Broadway and Hollywood revivals — and revealing a forgotten groundbreaking masterpiece. The San Francisco production, moreover, has a very San Francisco feel to it, and it is the one being filmed for video release.

That said, “Show Boat” does not suit an opera company quite as easily as might be hoped. Zambello tries to do it all. She has retained the period feel of the show, based on a novel by Edna Ferber, about life on the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi showboat in the late 1880s in a troubling South, where miscegenation is a crime. The scope is vast.

But Peter J. Davison’s sets are colorfully bland, as are Paul Tazewell’s period costumes. There is an overall tameness that can sometimes happen when opera takes on Broadway. But Zambello demonstrates convincing skill in contrasting the striking juxtapositions between slapstick, song-and-dance routines, serious subject matter and penetrating music.

The life on the river, where blacks are subservient to whites, is complicated. The very first word in the show, sung by a chorus of stevedores, isn’t dared used here and has been changed to “colored folk.” It was a different time, in 1927, but Hammerstein still meant to shock. This “Show Boat” won’t shock. But it is a very mixed bag full of life, especially in the way a cast of mixed theatrical background plays off each other.

At one extreme, San Francisco Opera has turned to one of its favorite sopranos, Patricia Racette (who is concurrently starring in “Madama Butterfly” here) for Julie, a mixed-race singer and actress who turns to drink when chased out of Mississippi for marrying a white man. At the other extreme, another Bay Area favorite, Bill Irwin, makes his sort-of San Francisco Opera debut as the Cotton Blossom’s irresistibly hammy Cap’n Andy Hawks. He did appear with the company as a member of the Pickle Family Circus in a 1977 “Turandot,” starring Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballè.

The brilliance, though, of “Show Boat” in the best parts of this production is in the way tragedy and comedy are, as in life, unavoidable companions. Sentiment can be thick, but life, like “Ol’ Man River,” Kern’s and the show’s greatest song, just keeps rolling along.

And along the way, Morris Robinson’s Joe brings a penetratingly deep operatic bass to “Ol’ Man River.” Angela Renee Simpson is a sensational scene-stealing Queenie, his sassy wife. The romantic leads, Heidi Stober and Michael Todd Simpson, as Magnolia Hawks and the river gambler Gaylord Ravenal, convey an easy blend of show-tune naturalism and operatically luxurious vocal production.

Broadway actors Kirsten Wyatt and John Bolton provide the showboat’s song-and-dance team of Ellie Mae Chipley and Frank Schultz considerable razzle-dazzle. Harriet Harris is a hilariously shrill Parthy Ann Hawkes.

The chorus is first rate. Michele Lynch’s choreography for three couples of black dancers and three of white dancers is dazzlingly interesting. DeMain conducts the mostly original 1927 orchestrations with a built-in sense of the American style.

All that works. What doesn’t work is the War Memorial Opera House. It is too big, too acoustically compromised and too much an opera house. Amplification turns out to still be necessary even if more dignified than typical of Broadway. The result is as though we were hearing the goings on from a showboat drifting across San Francisco Bay.

In addition, the company takes an operatic convention bizarrely too far with its projected titles for not only the songs but also the dialogue. They were only needed for the chorus and shouldn’t have been even for that.

An uncompromised “Show Boat” that dared to be controversial in a great setting (how about a showboat?) remains a dream. This is the best we have, and it is still a pretty great show. It runs through July 2.