Last Tuesday I was at the War Memorial Opera House for the third performance of San Francisco Opera's production of Kern and Hammerstein's Show Boat, directed by Francesca Zambello and conducted by John DeMain. I had some quibbles, but on the whole it is a triumph.
The production is fluid yet full of colorful spectacle; appropriately for this very American story, much use is made of red, white, and blue (with Julie La Verne often subtly set apart in somber purple). The first half is so packed with songs that are not just famous but have taken on a life of their own that I was reminded of the legendary theater-goer who described Hamlet as "that play that's full of quotations." The second half of the show has always been a bit problematic, since it lacks the clear dramatic arc of the first half, which combines the romance (from first meeting to marriage) of gambler Gaylord Ravenal and the impressionable and ambitious young Magnolia Hawks with the downfall of her friend Julie La Verne, the leading actress in the show, who has been "passing." The second half covers years rather than months, with an episodic depiction of Julie's descent into self-destructive drunkenness, the desperate Gaylord's desertion of his family, and Magnolia's rise to lonely stardom.
Theater happens in real time and before our eyes, which makes it difficult to illustrate the passing of time – not just as a plot device, but as a theme. If you're Proust, you can write a seven-volume series of novels and show your characters changing (and the narrator's perceptions of them changing) over time. Given the length of time it takes to read thousands of pages, the work gives you a palpable, even physical sense of what the passing of time means. Conveying such a sense in a stage show is much more difficult, unless you want to make the evening into a Wagnerian endurance test. So a reprise of Ol' Man River has to suffice, which actually works pretty well since it is one of the most powerful songs ever written for the American theater.
But from another perspective, the episodic nature of the second act can in a way function (at least it did for me) as a reminder of the passing of time: I do find as I age that things move faster and faster (days may be slow, but the years are swift), and events that I thought occurred two years ago turn out to be from ten. But time passing is just one of the major themes in Show Boat; there's also, obviously, the ugly and tormented history of race relations in America (a daring choice of subject matter, which is one of the reasons for Show Boat's historical and artistic importance), but also the influences and borrowings among black and white performers. When Julie first sings Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man, she is joined by Queenie and Joe, but also by Magnolia, who has learned to shimmy the way they do (this is made a little clearer in the McGlinn recording, in which we hear Joe tell Magnolia to dance "like I taught you"). In the second half, when Magnolia learns in an audition that changing times require a ragtime version of the song, we see the three black stagehands in the background start to dance along – it's their song, and their style. (The dancing throughout the show is outstanding. Michele Lynch was the choreographer; I couldn't find the names of the dancers in the program, unfortunately.) Economic exploitation frequently accompanied what these days is usually called "cultural appropriation" (and the economic exploitation of African-Americans is certainly a major theme of Show Boat, starting with the opening chorus), but it's important to remember that they are two separate and not indivisible things; the history of all cultures is the history of "cultural appropriation."
There's also the theme of theatrical dreams versus harsh reality – there's a reason that when Gaylord and Magnolia first meet, their love duet is Make Believe ("Others find peace of mind in pretending; couldn't you – couldn't I – couldn't we?"). But we see this theme in the very first moments of the show, as the African-American chorus sings of their daily, back-breaking labor while the voices of the white chorus float above them, in pretty and flirtatious banter. The theme is picked up comically when Ellie sings the delightful Life Upon the Wicked Stage, trying to explain to the star-struck girls of Natchez that her life as an actress is not as glamorous as they think it is. And it shows up in various forms throughout the show, so that even the use of an old theater joke about the bumpkin audience member who disrupts the play by threatening to shoot the villain if he doesn't unhand the girl illustrates (as in the second act of Nixon in China) the sometimes perilously thin line between theatrical illusion and reality. It's Magnolia who has learned to survive in the harsh world (as mentioned earlier, Julie sinks into alcoholism and Gaylord, shamed by his inability to support his family due to his gambling losses, runs off), so there's a special resonance when, towards the end of the second act, when she's a big star with the Ziegfield Follies, she acknowledges both the appeal of performance and the sorrow of the world with the lilting Dance Away the Night.
It's this combination in Magnolia that makes the ending so powerful: Captain Andy has worked things so that she will visit the show boat (now a nostalgic evocation of a vanished America) the same night as the returned Gaylord. As they see each other for the first time in many years, they are distracted first by their grown daughter's recognition of her vanished father and then by an older woman on the levee who recognizes them and, assuming they've been together all along, reminisces about the day she saw them married, many years ago. She is glad that things turned out so well. The two lovers stand apart, in a deep and emotionally complicated silence, while the final reprise of Ol' Man River swells overwhelmingly up.
It's tough to know where to start praising the excellent cast. Michael Todd Simpson as Gaylord Ravenal has a sweetly virile tenor and a dashing resemblance to a more elegant Robert Louis Stevenson. Kirsten Wyatt and John Bolton as Ellie Mae Chipley and Frank Schultz, the second-banana comedy couple on the boat who end up in vaudeville, are bright and funny and appealing and dance as well as they sing. Angela Renée Simpson is a vibrant, warm-hearted Queenie, with some beautiful floated notes. Patricia Racette, a long-time favorite here, is a touching, self-destructive and generous Julie. When Queenie is surprised that Julie knows Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man ("I didn't ever hear anybody but colored folks sing that song . . . sounds funny for Miss Julie to know it") she's almost insouciant in her response – she knows that as a "mulatto" passing for white she's in a perilous position; it's almost as if exposure would be a relief at that point. Her rendition in the second act of Bill (another song, this time gently, poignantly comic, about loving a guy even though you know he isn't much good, which is also kind of a theme in the show) is heartbreaking in its directness and simplicity.
But for me the two most indelible performers are Heidi Stober as Magnolia and Morris Robinson as Joe. Magnolia's ability to stay open-hearted while growing from eager girl to mature woman is the emotional core of the show. Stober is just radiant throughout, deftly using her body and voice to capture the changes in Magnolia. What a lovely, soaring voice and a masterly portrayal. Morris Robinson's Joe is the other emotional center of the musical. There's an interesting edge of anger when he first sings Ol' Man River, not just at the racist social system ("don't look up, and don't look down; you don't dast make the white boss frown") but at all futile human suffering, eventually obliterated only by onrushing time. I was sobbing. Joe might have been seen (and is sometimes seen by other characters, including Queenie) as a stereotype of "the shiftless Negro," but the power and dignity of this song always deepen the audience's perception of him; what might look like laziness is actually a form of rebellion and even of philosophy. When Joe, an old man now, reprises Ol' Man River at the finale, it has a more resigned, even elegiac air to it. And if he and Queenie are still on the same dock while Magnolia has been conquering the stages of London and New York, and Frank and Ellie the vaudeville circuit, that's a reminder of how restricted opportunities were for African-Americans.
OK, I mentioned some quibbles . . . the singing is, as far as I could tell, unamplified, which is as it should be, but the dialogue was amplified, and rather badly (as in, someone speaking would suddenly sound much louder or softer depending on where he was walking). It had that weird distancing effect on some of the dialogue. That may be why I felt that although every musical number landed exactly where it should, some of the more important lines seemed a bit rushed or unemphatic to me (that may also be a side effect of knowing a piece relatively well). I ended up liking Bill Irwin as Captain Andy, but initially he seemed too jittery in a very stagey way (when he wasn't supposed to be on stage, even though of course he's always on stage for the viewers, if you see what I mean). Harriet Harris as his wife Parthy gives an oddly relentlessly snarling performance. I've seen Harris on sitcoms and she is really wonderful at being acerbic and funny. Here I think she needed to be more restrained in some of her reactions. (Maybe it played differently in the far reaches of the opera house.) Parthy is not a particularly winning character and I think it's important to bring out that some of her reactions are due to a starchy sense of what is appropriate (related to her own perception of what makes her a respectable woman) rather than just to meanness and pettiness. Otherwise you wonder what brought her and Captain Andy together, and what keeps them together.
Show Boat is probably best known these days through John McGlinn's massive, all-inclusive 1988 recording, though the famous 1936 film with Helen Morgan and Paul Robeson has recently become available on DVD. (There is also a silent/part-sound film from 1929, which is based on the novel rather than the musical and is partially lost and not readily available, and an MGM musical from 1951, which I've only seen part of, but which apparently changes quite a bit of the play, in particular reducing the importance of the African-American characters). The musical has a convoluted performance history and there really isn't a "definitive" version. This performance had some interesting changes from the McGlinn recording, which served to heighten the racial theme.
For one thing, the opening chorus of black stevedores now sings, "Colored folks work on the Mississippi" instead of "Niggers all work on the Mississippi." "Nigger" is used occasionally in the dialogue, but mostly by low-class characters like the drunkard Pete, who gets revenge on Julie for rejecting his advances by informing the sheriff that she's half-black. The sheriff uses the terms "Nigra" and "negress." I think even in 1927 "nigger" was not a word that "nice" people used, at least in public. In 1927 its use in a musical was meant to be shocking; in 2014 it has become so obscene and controversial that its extensive use would overwhelm the show. These are sensible and sensitive changes. During Queenie's ballyhoo, when she's telling Captain Andy why he's not reaching "the colored folks," she no longer says (as in the McGlinn recording) "My people don't remember that long," but she does tell him, "You don't know how to talk to them." Again, a sensible change that removes a racial stereotype and highlights the difficulty the separated races had in understanding and communicating with each other. And at the end, the old lady on the levee (played by Lillian Gish on the McGlinn recording) is a dignified older African-American woman (Tracy Camp), so that the racial theme does not disappear when Julie La Verne does.
I glanced through the program and noted a bit of a defensive tone about presenting this work, which I don't really understand: no pearls are clutched or lorgnettes raised quizzically when the Opera, without explanation or apology, presents stale Austrian drek like The Merry Widow and Die Fledermaus, so why should anyone question their presentation of what is arguably the greatest and inarguably among the most influential American works of musical theater? Who else these days but an opera house has the skill and resources (and commitment to unamplified singing) to present this work as it should be presented, with two choruses (African-American and Caucasian), dancers, singers, and beautiful sets and costumes? Time keeps flowing on (as Show Boat reminds us), and one generation's popular art becomes the next's high art – this happens over and over, with everything from Elizabethan theater and Japanese woodblock prints and the novels of Dickens to the music of Kern, Porter, Gershwin, Arlen, and company. I'm not saying the opera house is the perfect venue for all musicals – The Boys from Syracuse, wonderful as it is, would be kind of lost there – but works like Show Boat or Sweeney Todd certainly have a vastness and depth that can hold their own on that stage.
You have six more chances to see the show (if tickets are available; it was very close to sold out the night I went). Don't miss it if you can help it! (And I hope the opera's production will be one of the productions released in their new DVD series.) More information is here.