Over the years I’ve seen the majority of the “standard” musicals, often more than once in various combinations of stage and screen. I even managed to insinuate myself into one once (My Fair Lady since you ask). But one has always managed to pass me by until now – and it’s often touted as the one that started the whole genre. Show Boat premiered in 1927 with the music of Jerome Kern and the lyrics/books of Oscar Hammerstein and effectively moved away from frivolous variety and vaudeville shows which had been the staple of American light entertainment to something more character driven and with deeper themes running throughout. Neither was it classified as opera – as there was an abundance of straight dialogue. That said, the version currently online was staged by the San Francisco Opera in 2014. However, the production veers away from the obvious and places the show somewhere between the two genres – and as it is a piece which bridges the two areas this is entirely appropriate.
I had always assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that the show was all about the song “Old Man River” and not much else but there are a number of other well-known songs which feature and that several times had me thinking “Oh, that’s where that comes from”. Even so it’s still the key song which resonates throughout, and which sets the tone for the drama. For this is no lightweight piece of fluff (though it does still contain such an element) but rather an examination of public and personal relationships and the changing social background against which they occur as seen in the original novel by Edna Ferber. The Cotton Blossom (the show boat of the title) is in effect a microcosm of society as it might be, where everyone mixes freely and prejudice does not exist until it docks on the shores of the Mississippi and comes under the sway of the law. By depicting racial intolerance, segregation, miscegenation and the mixed-race heritage of one of the key characters in a musical of all things, there are questions to be raised about the possible trivialisation of such issues. Kern and Hammerstein were apparently making bold choices at the show’s premiere even beginning the first line of the opening song with a word that is beyond the pale (mind you the chosen rewrite in this version is not a whole lot better) almost delivered as a slap in the face to wake us all up. However, this has not salvaged them from hostile criticism over the intervening years to the point where it has become a difficult show to mount. Given Hammerstein’s later attitudes towards racial equality in shows like South Pacific and The King and I, I’d like to think the pair were satirising societal attitudes rather than showing us their own and that they were leaving the audience to make up its own mind. The show starts in 1887, just twenty years after the American Civil War and the scars that were revealed over the issue of slavery have still not healed; things seem little improved by 1927 when it ends. Events in recent months have also given the show a new resonance in 2020.
The show itself is definitely a piece of two halves and the first is that much stronger for examining the complex issues which drive these river folks and for being compressed into a relatively short time frame. By contrast, the second half is a mish mash strung out over forty years and what seems to become a review of the changing styles of American entertainment encompassing scenes in a vaudeville bar and the Ziegfeld Follies. Suddenly the boat and its inhabitants almost disappear from view as the focus mostly shifts to Chicago and we follow the fortunes of the boat owner’s daughter Magnolia and her on off relationship with inveterate river gambler Gaylord Ravenal. Hammerstein’s book basically falls apart and the show becomes far too piecemeal with one scene set in a convent and using the overly convenient fact that all the ex-acts from the boat wash up in the one nightclub. Here they systematically perform their party pieces in defiance of the conventions which the first half started out by breaking. It all becomes like a light as air souffle following a (to use a current phrase) substantial meal and one that in my opinion becomes rather indigestible.
As with their Porgy and Bess, the San Francisco opera fields a huge ensemble which vocally raises the rafters and there is no denying the power of the individual voices which put the songs across the footlights. The acting in some cases is rather to broad for my tastes – the physical contortions of Bill Irwin’s Captain Andy, for instance, are ludicrous – and not in a good way; Harriet Harris as his wife Parthy is, alas, a one note stereotype. Heidi Stober does well to age from a teen to a mature woman as Magnolia though I didn’t detect much chemistry between her and Michael Todd Simpson as Ravenal. I started by admiring Patricia Racette as the unfortunate Julie but felt the overwrought delivery of “Bill”, her big number in Act 2, spoiled her performance. The beating heart of the piece both vocally and dramatically lies with Angela Renee Simpson as Queenie and Morris Robinson as her soul mate Joe (his delivery of the key song is memorable); the fact they barely appear in Act 2 speaks volumes for why the latter stages of the show don’t work. It’s taken me many years to get round to watching where the great American musical started. Would I watch it again? Well, I’d watch Act One anyway!
Production photos by Cory Weaver
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