Kern's Show Boat from San Francisco Opera

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Saturday, November 01, 2014

Morris Robinson and chorus in 'Show Boat' Morris Robinson and chorus in 'Show Boat' (San Francisco Opera, © Cory Weaver)

Tune in Saturday at 1 pm for a special edition of Saturday at the Opera: Our featured broadcast is "Show Boat" in a 2014 production by San Francisco Opera. The 1927 musical about love and race in 19th century Mississippi features timeless songs by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II including "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" as well as layered social themes.

The big production, by Francesca Zambello, features a cast of 65 singers, actors and dancers onstage drawn both from opera and Broadway, including soprano Patricia Racette as Julie, Morris Robinson and Joe and Bill Irwin as Cap'n Andy Hawks. John DeMain conducts.

Cast:

Magnolia Hawks Heidi Stober
Gaylord Ravenal Michael Todd Simpson *
Cap'n Andy Hawks Bill Irwin *
Julie La Verne Patricia Racette
Queenie Angela Renée Simpson
Parthy Ann Hawks Harriet Harris *
Ellie Mae Chipley Kirsten Wyatt *
Joe Morris Robinson
Frank Schultz John Bolton *
Mrs. O'Brien Sharon McNight *
Pete, Emcee James Asher *
Sheriff Vallon, Maitre d' Kevin Blackton *
Steve Baker, Max Greene Patrick Cummings *
Jake Matthew Piatt *
Natchez Girl, Young Kim Carmen Steele *
Queenie's Friend, Lady on the Levee Tracy Camp *
Girl Kathleen Bayler
Girl Sally Mouzon
Mother Superior Mary Finch
Queenie's Friend Samantha McElhaney
Lottie Erin Neff
Queenie's Friend, Woman Simone Paulwell *
Queenie's Friend Rachelle Perry
Backwoodsman Christopher Jackson
Young Man Anthony McGlaun *
Drunk, Dealer Phillip Pickens

Comments [12]

Any Bach operas this month, for Bachstock?

Nov. 02 2014 05:57 PM

Do the asterisks represent members of Actors' Equity Association? Shouldn't credit be given where due?

DD~~

@ Glen, that was brief?!?

Nov. 01 2014 07:02 PM
Glen Boisseau Becker from Harmony, Florida

[continued] Among the passages in the 1946 score that are NOT heard in the current production are most of the Act II ensemble "At the Chicago World's Fair" and "In Dahomey," a catchy, complex, and potentially disturbing interracial chorus that was included in every major stage production during Kern's lifetime (as well as the symphonic synthesis he compiled for concert purposes) but chopped out of every known production since his death.

The one moderately surprising omission is "I Might Fall Back on You" from the 1927 score.

Rehearsal time must have been limited compared with the preparation that goes into a Broadway production. Members of the operatic cast routinely fail to remember their lines perfectly; Magnolia even muffs a line in the song "Make Believe." Then there's the inevitable concern about the racial angle. The word "nigger" (which no one would have complained about in 1927) was heard several times in the San Francisco production but is awkwardly edited out of the radio broadcast. And--did I lose focus and miss something?--one of the most enduringly famous sequences in 1920s theater history is skipped completely: the tense moment when Steven Baker whips out a knife, cuts his wife's hand, and presses it to his mouth, so that he will be able to testify under oath that he has "Negro blood" in him too.

For all its flaws, this production mustered a certain amount of emotion in the second act, emerging as a cut above the 2012 Lyric Opera of Chicago broadcast, which was a complete disgrace. Meanwhile, as much as I love this show, I haven't encountered a good performance of it since a Papermill Playhouse production, circa 1987 (and when, a few years later, that production was reedited, revived with a different cast, and broadcast on television, it was a major disappointment).

I would give much to see a more faithful presentation--which, of course, would have to run quite a bit longer than 2 hours 20 minutes plus intermission. Meanwhile, it is rapidly becoming obvious that the vast expanse of an opera house is not the right place for this classic musical play. "Operatic" voices nowadays are no guarantee of good vocalism, and even with microphones, very few singers can project a natural-sounding delivery of dramatic dialogue to an audience of thousands, much less convincingly portray a teenage girl who is nearly 40 years older by the end of the story. Even when the late John McGlinn (my onetime college roommate) conducted his landmark recording of the score, the big-name operatic voices he was pressured into using turned out to be more liability than asset, as I think he would agree.

Again, we live in hope that someday, somewhere, a first-rate revival of SHOW BOAT will come along. (Let me know how the upcoming NY Phil concert version compares with the San Francisco broadcast.) In the meantime, to those are tempted to tune in for a rebroadcast of this production on a different radio station, I say "Congratulations on having missed it."

Nov. 01 2014 05:57 PM
Glen Boisseau Becker from Harmony, Florida

[continued] Among the passages in the 1946 score that are NOT heard in the current production are most of the Act II ensemble "At the Chicago World's Fair" and "In Dahomey," a catchy, complex, and potentially disturbing interracial chorus that was included in every major stage production during Kern's lifetime (as well as the symphonic synthesis he compiled for concert purposes) but chopped out of every known production since his death.

The one moderately surprising omission is "I Might Fall Back on You" from the 1927 score.

Rehearsal time must have been limited compared with the preparation that goes into a Broadway production. Members of the operatic cast routinely fail to remember their lines perfectly; Magnolia even muffs a line in the song "Make Believe." Then there's the inevitable concern about the racial angle. The word "nigger" (which no one would have complained about in 1927) was heard several times in the San Francisco production but is awkwardly edited out of the radio broadcast. And--did I lose focus and miss something?--one of the most enduringly famous sequences in 1920s theater history is skipped completely: the tense moment when Steven Baker whips out a knife, cuts his wife's hand, and presses it to his mouth, so that he will be able to testify under oath that he has "Negro blood" in him too.

For all its flaws, this production mustered a certain amount of emotion in the second act, emerging as a cut above last year's Lyric Opera of Chicago broadcast, which was a complete disgrace. Meanwhile, as much as I love this show, I haven't encountered a good performance of it since a Papermill Playhouse production, circa 1987 (and when, a few years later, that production was reedited, revived with a different cast, and broadcast on television, it was a major disappointment).

I would give much to see a more faithful presentation--which, of course, would have to run quite a bit longer than 2 hours 20 minutes plus intermission. Meanwhile, it is rapidly becoming obvious that the vast expanse of an opera house is not the right place for this classic musical play. "Operatic" voices nowadays are no guarantee of good vocalism, and even with microphones, very few singers can project a natural-sounding delivery of dramatic dialogue to an audience of thousands, much less convincingly portray a teenage girl who is nearly 40 years older by the end of the story. Even when the late John McGlinn (my onetime college roommate) conducted his landmark recording of the score, the big-name operatic voices he was pressured into using turned out to be more liability than asset, as I think he would agree.

Again, we live in hope that someday, somewhere, a first-rate revival of SHOW BOAT will come along. (Let me know how the upcoming NY Philharmonic concert version compares with today's broadcast.) In the meantime, to those are tempted to tune in for a rebroadcast of this production on a different radio station, I say "Congratulations on having missed it."

Nov. 01 2014 05:51 PM
Glen Boisseau Becker from Harmony, Florida

What a horrible mess!

It is easy to imagine the San Francisco Opera committee in a planning meeting: "We're going to take America's most distinguished operetta, with its immortal melodies and potent drama, select all the best material from the three authentic published editions of the score, offer up a big lavish production, and cast it with legitimate operatic voices. And let's have some fun with it!"

Now let's consider the likely response from someone unacquainted with SHOW BOAT who tunes in to this broadcast: "How could anyone enjoy this creaking antique? The star baritone has an adequate voice with no feeling in it, while practically all the other soloists torture us with off-key warbling and uncontrolled vibrato. And those theatrically exaggerated dialog readings make one scene after another sound like a third-rate acting company performing a nineteenth-century melodrama aboard a show boat. This Julie, for instance--is she supposed to be glamorous? She drawls like an uneducated hillbilly (and some of the others are doing their best to imitate her). If the audience members are going wild at the end, it must be because they already love these songs, or they're caught up in the spectacle and the story, but they're not even listening to the performance."

For those of us who have spent a lifetime affectionately studying this show, the response is more complex but hardly more positive. The opening strains of the orchestra arouse the highest hopes; then suddenly the conductor skips half the overture, and we're hearing "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" (as De Main consistently plays it) in a jerky, jazzy rhythm that matches neither the published music nor any recording made in Kern's lifetime.

The overture in question, by the way, is the second of three that Kern's orchestrator (the uncredited Robert Russell Bennett) composed for the piece--and quite possibly the best choice. Immediately it becomes clear that the rewritten score published in 1946, about the time of Kern's death, is the primary source for this production.

Gaylord's theme song, "Till Good Luck Comes My Way," is added from the 1927 score. And this is a very rare chance to hear it well sung, except that it was written for a tenor with chorus. Gaylord having become a baritone in the 1946 version, the San Francisco team has cast Michael Todd Simpson, who doesn't even attempt the high A's.

Other interpolations from 1927 include "Mis'ry's Comin' Around," and a full-length version of "Queenie's Ballyhoo," as well as "Hey, Fella" (a very welcome restoration despite an undersized, mushy-mouthed choral group). From the 1929 score, we hear "Dance Away the Night," though shortened, slightly slowed, and rendered by Magnolia instead of her daughter Kim.

Nov. 01 2014 05:45 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

On this cold and rainy day, I am so enjoying this beautiful musical drama. Bravi tutti.

Nov. 01 2014 01:37 PM
cocoalola from Montclair,NJ

Old Man River always give me chills. Wonderful!!!

Nov. 01 2014 01:28 PM
cocoalola from United States

I never miss an opportunity to enjoy Show Boat. Awesome music!

Nov. 01 2014 01:25 PM
Linden from 96720

What's with the truly bad "southern" accents? Zambello's choice?

Nov. 01 2014 01:24 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

PATRICIA RACETTE as JULIE ought to be something to write home about. The SAN FRANCISCO OPERA has been casting well. Let's hope that this broadcast continues in their bradcast series to impress. SHOWBOAT is JEROME KERN's iconic signature work. It and GEORGE GERSHWIN's PORGY AAND BESS are operas that are as AMERICAN as one can get Composers who are cognizant of the current popular psyche are reluctant to claim that their work is an opera as it may be dismissed out of hand as too elitist. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, an opera composer ["Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare"], teacher of voice production and I train and coach big-voiced singers in the Wagner rep and actors in the Shakespeare oeuvre. www.WagnerOpera

Nov. 01 2014 12:24 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

What a splendid piece of Americana.

Nov. 01 2014 09:27 AM

A lot of asterisks there. What's that about? (Though I can guess.)

DD~~

Nov. 01 2014 08:48 AM

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