Once in a lifetime you get the opportunity to see four opera companies, 100 performers, and 50 musicians put on America’s first, most iconic musical, Show Boat. Washington National Opera has partnered with the L Washington National Opera and the Houston Grand Opera to bring this tale of a river boat crew of performers to life. The show will warm your heart, the dancing will have you tapping your feet and the singing will blow you out of the water. The staging and production is ambitious and gorgeous, but the simple tale of these show business folks and the obvious love the performers have for these characters carries the show.
Show Boat’s music was written by Jerome Kern with book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the novel by Edna Ferber. It premiered in 1927, and has come to mark the advent of the modern musical, a production more in common with the epic and serious style of European opera from a century past but with a uniquely American feel. Before Show Boat, most of Broadway was comedic, episodic musicals, and follies.
WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello directs this piece and gives lavish attention to every moment. The opera spans more than 20 years and dozens of locations and each one is given its due in seamless set changes and clever costuming. The wealth of detail is just stunning throughout the whole production, from the huge musical numbers like “Cotton Blossom” and “After the Ball” to the quiet, poignant moment between father and daughter in “Make Believe.” She builds the many shows within the show to highlight the actors and poke some fun at their profession, which the performers enthusiastically take up.
Choreographer Michele Lynch obviously steeped herself in history to create this piece, drawing on classic swing dance, can can, and Charleston moves throughout. She also did a fabulous job creating dances that integrates this cast of opera and Broadway performers, and professional dancers. Everyone looks great in the fun numbers like “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” and the “Wedding. Scene.”
Conductor John DeMain greets the crowd with a grin and seems to personally create every note with this fabulous orchestra. He has a major job to do since these songs are still so well known and they’ve never sounded better. The orchestra plays almost continuously and getting that balance right to not overwhelm the singers is also a feat.
The best part of the production by far is the music. The plays begins as a rag tag group of dock workers and townspeople wait for the river boat and then they open their mouths for “Cotton Blossom” and the voices of a hundred trained opera singers fill the house.Show Boat will never be the same.
Morris Robinson (Joe) nails “Ol’ Man River” with a haunting rendition. I’m having trouble finding the words for the atmosphere in the theater he created as he sang it. Soloman Howard, a Domino-Cafriz Young Artist, will play Joe on select dates. Angela Rene Simpson (Queenie) is a lovely and funny actor and soprano with her solos like “Hey, Feller.” Gwendolyn Brown will play Queenie on select dates.
Alyson Cambridge (Julie LaVerne) is powerful as the experienced stage performer with a major secret. Her iconic solos, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill” were moving and beautiful. Talise Trevigne will play Julie on select dates.
Adriana Chuchman (Magnolia Hawks) is sweet and innocent until she opens her mouth in a powerhouse soprano in her solos and duets with the dashing Michael Todd Simpson (Gaylord Ravenal) like “Make Believe.” She has a lot of fun with the role as well. “After the Ball,” her character’s singing debut, is a surprisingly touching moment. Simpson has a resonant and powerful baritone that matches in Chuchman well and suits this epic love story. Jennifer Holloway and Rod Gilfry will play Magnolia and Gaylord on select dates.
Broadway stars Kate Loprest (Ellie), Bernie Yvon (Frank), Lara Teeter (Captain Andy) and Cindy Gold (Parthy) round out the cast with a little comic relief and that big Broadway sound on numbers like “Cap’n Andy’s Ballyhoo” and “Good Bye My Lady Love.” Wynn Harmon and Mary-Pat Green will play Andy and Parthy on select dates.
A large cast of children adds to the milieu and the charm as they fly kites and dance and sing along with the rest of the cast. Maya McGuire (Kim) has a beautiful solo in “Make Believe” proving she’ll be on the stage for a while.
Another character in the piece, perhaps even the star of the show, is the river boat -the Cotton Blossom and Set Designer Peter J. Davison invokes the giant steam ship with a simple tiered series of balconies and stair cases. When they’re first revealed they’re the bow of a ship, but they are rotated and recombined to create the kitchens and the dance floor. It’s painted in red and white for a festive feel. Huge walls of rough wood of the docks act as curtains for scene changes and then everything changes in act 2 when the Ravenals reach Chicago.
The boat takes center stage but Lighting Designer Mark McCullough brings her to life. The play is set outside on the deck and sometimes it’s impossible to get the light to feel like you’re outdoors, but he does with blazing sun and soft sunsets and cool moonlit nights, and then transforms everything again in Chicago.
The river boat performer’s costumes are red and white to match the Cotton Blossom. They are the brightest onstage, but the women and men on the docks are clothed in rich striped, patterned, bold dresses with huge bustles and sleeves of 1900’s fashion. The Chicago ball gowns nearly blind with all of the glitter. As the play moves into the 1920s, the dresses get simpler and higher in the swinging fashion of the 20’s. Costume Designer Paul Tazewell has done the impossible of balancing every performer for a beautiful overall picture, while conjuring perfectly each character, while evolving costumes in each decade that passes.
Watching these fabulous performers lovingly take the show boat’s stage in this quintessential American musical makes for a once in a lifetime show. I laughed and cried, and will never forget the pageantry and pomp of this truly American classic.
DC Area’s Alyson Cambridge on Playing Julie in ‘Show Boat’ and Her Career by Joel Markowitz
On May 18, the WNO will host M&M’s Opera in the Outfield, where Show Boat will be simulcast live, free, at Nationals Park.
Running Time: Three hours with one 20-minute intermission.