Despite dramatic creaks, Lyric's 'Show Boat' proves see-worthy

 
By Scott Morgan
Updated 2/13/2012 6:26 PM
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  • Magnolia Hawks (Ashley Brown) and Gaylord Ravenal (Nathan Gunn) imagine a relationship after just meeting in the song "Make Believe" in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of the landmark 1927 Broadway musical "Show Boat."

    Magnolia Hawks (Ashley Brown) and Gaylord Ravenal (Nathan Gunn) imagine a relationship after just meeting in the song "Make Believe" in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of the landmark 1927 Broadway musical "Show Boat." Photo courtesy of Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera of Chic

  • Magnolia Hawks (Ashley Brown), Julie LaVerne (Alyson Cambridge) and Queenie (Angela Renee Simpson) meet together in the kitchen pantry aboard the Cotton Blossom to sing "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of the landmark 1927 Broadway musical "Show Boat."

    Magnolia Hawks (Ashley Brown), Julie LaVerne (Alyson Cambridge) and Queenie (Angela Renee Simpson) meet together in the kitchen pantry aboard the Cotton Blossom to sing "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of the landmark 1927 Broadway musical "Show Boat." Photo courtesy of Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera of Chic

  • The Cotton Blossom pulls into the Mississippi River town of Natchez in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of "Show Boat."

    The Cotton Blossom pulls into the Mississippi River town of Natchez in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of "Show Boat." Photo courtesy of Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera of Chic

  • The marriage of Magnolia to Ravenal (Ashley Brown and Nathan Gunn, center) is celebrated in the Act I finale of the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of "Show Boat."

    The marriage of Magnolia to Ravenal (Ashley Brown and Nathan Gunn, center) is celebrated in the Act I finale of the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of "Show Boat." Photo courtesy of Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago

  • Joe (Morris Robinson, center) and the ensemble sing the iconic Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II song "Ol' Man River" in front of the Cotton Blossom in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of the landmark 1927 Broadway musical "Show Boat."

    Joe (Morris Robinson, center) and the ensemble sing the iconic Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II song "Ol' Man River" in front of the Cotton Blossom in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of the landmark 1927 Broadway musical "Show Boat." Photo courtesy of Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera of Chic

Opera purists may grumble, but it makes plenty of sense for the Lyric Opera of Chicago to tackle a massive Broadway musical like "Show Boat."

Showman Florenz Ziegfeld (creator of the lavish Ziegfeld Follies) originally produced this landmark American musical when it debuted in 1927, so the resources of a major opera company like the Lyric prove invaluable in meeting today's demands for a spectacle-filled show.

So even if the Lyric's new "Show Boat" creaks a bit dramatically, you're guaranteed plenty of great stage sights ranging from the historical parade of colorful period costumes by designer Paul Tazewell to a bevy of splashy dance numbers by choreographer Michele Lynch.

Since Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's classic "Show Boat" score encompasses both European operetta and American vaudeville styles, director Francesca Zambello wisely drew from both the opera and musical theater worlds for her ensemble. With veteran conductor John DeMain leading the Lyric Opera Orchestra, this "Show Boat" floats along heavenly from one musical high point to another as it offers dramatic tales of love and coincidence among show folk from the 1880s through the 1920s.

Hearing Morris Robinson as Joe plumb the deep depths of his strong bass voice to sing the anthemic "Ol' Man River" is unquestionably one of the major highlights of Lyric's "Show Boat." Soprano Alyson Cambridge also makes for an alluring Julie LaVerne, the pivotal biracial actress who initially hides her heritage and caressingly sings both "Bill" and parts of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" with plenty of verve.

Unfortunately, many of the star opera singers' delivery of the dialogue comes off as halting and wooden compared to the acting of their more dramatically experienced musical theater co-stars (one major exception is soprano Angela Renee Simpson, whose turn as the sassy cook Queenie soars both when singing and speaking her knowing comic dialogue).

Broadway star Ashley Brown ("Mary Poppins") as the ingénue Magnolia Hawks takes the show's major dramatic arc, convincingly going from a giggly young girl to a sadder-but-wiser leading lady with a great soprano voice. As the dapper gambler Gaylord Ravenal, baritone Nathan Gunn definitely possesses great leading-man looks and a honeyed voice, but it would have been nicer if he showed a stronger romantic chemistry with Brown.

As the comic vaudevillians Frank Shultz and Ellie May Chipley, Bernie Yvon and Erika Mac respectively provide plenty of razzle-dazzle pizazz in their numbers (particularly their New Year's Eve duet "Goodbye, My Lady Love"). Veteran Chicago actor Ross Lehman also gets choice laughs as Capt. Andy Hawks.

Though "Show Boat" famously deals with race in its key Act I "miscegenation scene," we get little sense of how crippling institutionalized racism was for African-Americans later on in Zambello's Lyric staging when compared to director Harold Prince's 1994 Broadway production, which notably highlighted segregated drinking fountains to show how little social progress was made during the course of the show.

So along with set designer Peter J. Davison's fragmentary approach to depicting the Cotton Blossom river vessel and the sometimes uneven amplification of sound designer Mark Grey, there's a sense that there is a little something missing in the Lyric's otherwise impressive "Show Boat."

Still, this historically significant American musical deserves to be revived, and Lyric's production is an important staging that helps insure that "Show Boat" will "keep rolling along" into the 21st century.

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