Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center
01/18/2013 - & January 20, 26, 30, February 1*, 3, 6, 9, 2013
Joseph Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II: Show Boat
Marietta Simpson (Queenie), David Matranga (Steve Baker/Max), Andrew J. Love (Pete/Emcee), Cheryl Parrish (Parthy Ann Hawks), Lara Teeter (Cap'n Andy Haws), Melody Moore (Julie LaVerne), Lauren Snouffer (Ellie May Chipley), Joseph Kaiser (Gaylord Ravenal), Sasha Cooke (Magnolia Hawks), Rutherford Cravens (Sherriff Vallon/Maitre d'), Morris Robinson (Joe), Tye Blue (Frank Schultz), Steven Hale (Backwoodsman), Jacqueline Hickman), Christina Keefe (Mrs. O'Brien), Frankie Hickman (Mother Superior), Patrick Harvey (Jake), Lynn Wyatt (The Lady on the Levee)
Francesca Zambello (Director), Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Patrick Summers (conductor), Peter J. Davison (Set Designer), Paul Tazewell (Costume Designer), Mark McCullough (Lighting Designer)
M. Robinson (© Felix Sanchez)
Houston Grand Opera has renewed its devotion to American musical theater, a devotion that helped put the company on the map. If the quality of the current run of Show Boat is any indication, this is an excellent idea that presents important, smartly curated works from the genre in excellent productions and gives added context to the role in the American arts of all musical theater works, from Monteverdi to Kern, Theofanidis to Sondheim.
One shouldn't go to this production expecting a remaining of this classic musical, but a top-notch, standard rendition of it. The wonderful sets, costumes and lighting, focusing primarily though not garishly on red, white and blue, cast a Technicolor-like veneer over the whole affairs. Our nostalgia for the work is exploited by director Francesca Zambello, who is careful not to get in the way of any aspect of the story.
The large cast, too, is filled with excellent, distinctive voices. It is interesting to compare the successful chemistry of the couples in this production to the more variable duos in HGO's concurrent run of Don Giovanni. Here, the dramatic arc of the relationship between Magnolia and Gaylord is expertly portrayed. Sasha Cooke has a wonderful voice: pure, flexible and, when needed, hefty. Her blonde locks and doe-eyed giddiness at the start of Act I noticeably mature throughout the opera, catalyzed by Joseph Kaiser's equally effective singing and acting. Likewise, Parthy and Cap'n Andy are perfect opposites. Cheryl Parrish is appropriately stuffy, and Lara Teeter steals his scenes from even the largest ensemble. He is especially impressive in his physical and vocal comedy as he narrates to the disappointed audience on the Cotton Blossom when the melodrama is interrupted halfway through Act I.
Marietta Simpson and Morris Robinson also perfectly inhabit their characters. Simpson's Queenie is the wise sage, but also wonderfully rambunctious, and she too possesses a topnotch voice for Kern's melodies. Robinson's Joe intones "Ol' Man River" with a simple intensity that lets us focus on the gorgeous enormity of his sound as well as the uncanny unfolding of the song. Lauren Snouffer and Tye Blue have the most fun on stage, and work off each others' energy with magnetic results. Finally, Melody Moore smartly downplays her character's first act assignments. She comes fully into her own in middle of "Bill" in Act II and finally reveals the communicative, powerful singing that made Julie LaVerne the show boat's original leading lady.
Patrick Summers works his usual magic with his wonderful orchestra and chorus. There are a surprising number of delicate tempo shifts and tricky ensemble numbers that are kept perfectly in check, and the musicians clearly delight in the show's "big" moments, with bold brass supporting the balanced, blended and powerful choral numbers. Indeed, the joy of seeing a work like this put on by an opera house of HGO's caliber comes in part from the excellence of the orchestral and choral ensembles. In short, Kern's score couldn't sound better. I hope that HGO reconsiders its decision not to use subtitles for these productions. Summers notes in the playbill that "patrons would not encounter or expect them in the commercial theater," but here we have the work in a different light, and in front of a different audience. Supertitles would have been hugely useful, as many of the subtler ingenuities in Hammerstein's lyrics were lost.
All things considered, however, this production deserves to be seen, and the renewed presentation of seminal works of American musical theater (next season sees Sondheim's A Little Night Music come to the stage), is most welcome.
Marcus Karl Maroney