19 Apr 2012

Show Boat at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago has begun with the current season’s production of Show Boat a series of musicals of the American theater to be featured in coming years.

Francesca Zambello applied her directorial talents to the current production and allows Show Boat to speak for itself as a straightforward and entertaining piece of theatrical tradition. Featured cast members include Ashley Brown as Magnolia Hawks, Nathan Gunn as Gaylord Ravenal, Alyson Cambridge as Julie, Angela Renée Simpson as Queenie, Morris Robinson as Joe, Ross Lehmann as Captain Hawks, Cindy Gold as Parthy Ann Hawks, and Ericka Mac as Ellie May Chipley. John DeMain conducted the Lyric Opera Orchestra.

After the overture settled from a brassy start into familiar melodic lines, DeMain highlighted rhythmic shifts to good effect. The “Cotton Blossom” song, named for the riverboat with its staged entertainment, was performed with choral energy yet individual phrases could profit from greater emphasis on diction. The argument between the engineer Pete and the actor Steve, which motivates so much of the subsequent conflict, is convincingly staged. Others members of the ship’s community react immediately to Steve’s dismissal and to the isolation of his wife Julie LaVerne. In the role of the undertalented Ellie May, Ms. Mac sings intentionally off-key and overcompensates charmingly in her attempts to portray an ambitious yet ill-trained replacement for Julie in the ship’s roster of actors.

The arrival of Gaylord Ravenal introduces the second dramatic and emotional twist that will have an effect on the remainder of the piece. It is a role that suits Mr. Gunn’s voice and dramatic talents well. In his first song, “Who cares if my Boat Goes Upstream?” Gunn’s sense of line adds to the carefree swagger of Ravenal’s personality. Here and elsewhere the orchestra could serve the soloist better if taken less forte in its enthusiastic accompaniment. The pivotal duet with Magnolia, “Make Believe,” was performed touchingly by Ms. Brown and Mr. Gunn, as the impression of a naïve yet convincing affection was kindled. When left to consider her thoughts, Magnolia asks Joe the husband of Queenie whether this attraction could be a signal of love. As sung by Mr. Robinson, the response of Joe, “Ol’ Man River,” is one of the highlights of the production. Robinson portrays Joe with dramatic physicality and with fully assured vocal technique. His sonorous bass is rich and full in even the lowest pitches, and his legato matches the rolling pull of the river. When Robinson repeats the song subsequently with male chorus, the effect is equally striking. Magnolia’s second confidante Julie hears next of the budding romance. After the trusting exchange with Magnolia, Ms. Cambridge sang the well-known comment on love, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” Cambridge showed here a firm sense of musical line as it supported the text yet the enunciation of lyrics was overly careful. After Ravenal’s gambling song, performed with spirited determination by Gunn, the remainder of Act I alternates between staffing the showboat’s entertainment and the developing romance of the protagonists.


Because of Mississippi racial laws the marriage of Julie and Pete is questioned, a complication leading to her dismissal as lead in the musical show. Captain Hawks decides that his daughter Magnolia will substitute since she is familiar with the numbers from having attended rehearsals. Almost simultaneously Ellie May performs with female chorus the comment, “Life on the Wicked Stage.” Ms. Mac assured that the number was an exhilarating showstopper with all pitches at this point sung correctly. The love between Magnolia and Ravenal blooms, just as they rehearse the fictional parts of lovers on the stage. Brown and Gunn gave a convincing rendition of “You are Love” as they make plans for their own wedding in keeping with the stage-show’s narrative. As Act I ends, stories about Ravenal’s past do not deter Captain Hawks from supporting the marriage yet his wife Parthy’s reaction hints at domestic difficulties in Act II.

In the second act as arranged for this production the chronological sequence unfolded smoothly. The individual scenes cover a span of several decades in the domestic and emotional lives of Magnolia and Ravenal. Only the first scene taking place at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago gave any indication of the idyllic marriage promised by the lyrical exchange in the first act. The birth of a daughter hardly deters Ravenal from his continued gambling. Indeed one of the most emotionally moving scenes in Act II is Gunn’s departure from his daughter staged in the convent school. The reprise of “Make Believe” in this scene recalls earlier happiness and looks wistfully toward a future reconciliation. For her part Ms. Brown’s portrayal of Magnolia as an independent performer after having been left by Ravenal was achieved with both vocal and dramatic skill. Her voice matured noticeably as she sang “After the Ball,” and sheer confidence could only describe her solo appearance in a Ziegfield show in New York. Since Queenie had attended these latter performances, she repeats one of Nola’s popular numbers back on the show boat. Ms. Simpson sings “Hey Feller!” with gusto and decided glee in her committed enthusiasm. The final reunion of Magnolia, Ravenal, and their daughter takes place, appropriately, where the romance began with the hope of a transformed future.

Salvatore Calomino