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Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's 1927 musical play Show Boat is credited with switching Broadway musicals from revues and variety pieces to comedy dramas where the songs establish and support the characters and help tell the story. I learned some interesting things about this favorite reviewing the 1936 Universal film adaptation, a DVD I recommend to everyone not determined to hold out for a Blu-ray. Directed with impeccable taste by James Whale, that show featured the incomparable Irene Dunne, Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan, and pretty much marginalizes MGM's 1951 slimmed-down remake.
When I saw that an 'opera' version was being offered, I looked before I leaped. Some of the newer high-end productions of this kind can be glorified concerts that isolate the songs with a big orchestra. I also wanted to check that it wasn't a minimalist rendering, the kind where there's no real scenery and the singers perform in stylized costumes. Nope, this well-reviewed production of Kern & Hammerstein: Show Boat, performed by the San Francisco Opera, is an impressive staging that's bigger than full scale.
What's an opera company doing staging a Broadway show? As explained by the show's conductor John DeMain, to be done right Show Boat needs a production much bigger than an average Broadway offering of today: the original music calls for an orchestra of fifty, with two choruses, twenty dancers and a large cast. 1 Director Francesca Zambello does streamline the book of the musical, but we're told it's to take out redundancies that talked about events before they happened and recapped them afterward. The story moves forward nicely. I didn't feel any abbreviations. As explained in the disc extras, director Zambello's aim was to stress the dancing and singing over the chatter. Yet the book still has plenty of jokes. I think it flows very smoothly; it doesn't play like a digest version.
The play is still the same -- here's the general setup for the storyline. Since only a minority of fans have had the opportunity to see plays like this on a stage, those of us familiar with the movie versions need to be prepared for more songs and more reprises of songs. Short-changed in both movie versions, Ellie May and Frank are afforded several more chances to shine. The producers call out a particular song, "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'," sung by Queenie before Julie LaVerne is revealed to be passing for white. In this case a song foreshadows bad things coming. It had been left out of the original Broadway version but it's quite good. Some of the other restored songs are good too. Of course, the favorites are still "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man."
It's a heck of a show, to be honest, mounted on a big scale. There are often 30 performers on stage at a time. None of them are caught with equivalent of standing around waving beer steins. The impressively designed costumes are a riot of color. Every other scene has a dance number with real choreography, not modern power dancing or exhibition stunts. The cast members are all strong singers, and some songs are sung in a slightly operatic style (like I should know), stressing long, clear notes. Heidi Stober is no Irene Dunne, and Michael Todd Simpson isn't a Hollywood matinee idol either, but they look
fine and inhabit their roles well. Bill Irwin does some serious clowning; the producers acknowledge that he's the one cast member known outside the opera world. Capn' Andy's big scene performing a stage melodrama by himself, after the cast has fled, shows that Bill Irwin has the chops to do more than deliver one-liners. As Queenie, Angela René Simpson gets more exposure than did Hattie McDaniel in the James Whale movie. Her relationship with Magnolia is enlarged. Because the play returns to the Cotton Blossom at the finale, Queenie & Joe, and Andy and Parthy are allowed to participate in the sentimental finish. 3
The videotaped performances of some Steven Sondheim shows I've enjoyed (Into the Woods, Passion, Sunday in the Park with George) were staged partly for the camera, to optimize the plays for the TV audience. This Kern & Hammerstein: Show Boat may have been taped from several performances, but it doesn't look like anybody stopped to touch up makeup, etc. Close-ups are obtained mostly with long lenses. Although the blocking is good it's not optimized for the camera. As long lenses are used, a matched cut will sudden reveal that characters are not as close together as they seemed. When we see these close-ups, we're getting a better look at the characters than the audience did -- after just a few minutes of singing those demanding songs, the perspiration is very visible. Morris Robinson's "Ol' Man River" is almost ten minutes straight of hitting those deep low notes. He carries a handkerchief that's more like a towel. Although Robinson looks perfectly at ease, we wouldn't be surprised to be told that he sheds a couple of pounds of water with each performance.
The fact that we're seeing real performances also shows us the precision of the dancers, who are just excellent. In some the later Rogers & Hammerstein shows, especially on film, the dancing can seem like a time out, or an exile to a dream sequence.
All in all, this is a fine record of an impressive show, the kind with melodies that will stick in one's head for days. I know people that journey to New York twice a year to take in the big new shows; I only wish more of the plays ended up preserved like this great presentation by the San Francisco Opera.
EuroArt's Blu-ray of Kern & Hammerstein: Show Boat is an HD dazzler on Blu-ray, with excellent color to show off all those colorful sets and costumes. The video quality is excellent throughout.
One thing I thought was good is that the show doesn't appear to use amplification for the performers, or to mike them directly. If I'm correct this gives the singing a much more natural quality. It's important to play the disc at a slightly louder volume, as the separation between the music and the voices isn't as pronounced as we expect. But at least we're not hearing everybody's voice optimized to a full level. What we hear is what they sound like (again, if I'm correct), not what some music producer goosed in the mixing bay.
The video extras include interview pieces, about six minutes each, that allow all the performers to have their say; we hear the expected fluff talk but also some good observations about the show. The director and conductor make an appearance as well. They're partly in promotional mode too, but conductor DeMain comes forth with information about things I hadn't though of at all. The underscore had to be newly orchestrated to fit, he explains, especially after the director slimmed down the dialogue scenes.
Opera discs often have thin booklets that leave the viewer wanting more; this EuroArt booklet has some nice color stills, a full cast and crew rundown, plus descriptions of the featurettes. A story and song breakdown is provided in English, German and French, as are text notes from Zambello and DeMain.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
2. This version reportedly keeps most all of the original story intact. Capn' Andy (Bill Irwin) commands the beloved show boat Cotton Blossom, performing up and down the river. His wife Parthy Ann (Harriet Harris) makes it her mission to keep their daughter Magnolia (Heidi Stober) separate from the 'undignified' actors in Andy's troupe. Ellie May Chipley and Frank Schultz (Kirsten Wyatt & John Bolton) sing and dance and do comedy, while the company's star is the beautiful Miss Julie LaVerne (Patricia Racette). Magnolia defies her mother to sing and dance with Julie and the ship's cook Queenie and her 'man,' handyman Joe (Angela Renée Simpson & Morris Robinson). But when Julie is revealed to be a black passing for white, she and her husband Steve run afoul of miscegenation laws and must leave the show. Magnolia takes her place and Andy hires the gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Michael Todd Simpson) to play opposite her. Against Parthy Ann's dictates, the new pair falls deeply in love.
3. Patricia Racette is a major star of the international opera stage, a frequent star of the Metropolitan Opera, and noted for her versatility. She is well known for her performances as Miss Giddons in Benjamin Britten's Turn of the Scre. So her presence in this San Francisco production is a major coup for the company and this video. It's interesting to see her with spoken lines, for example, although she is quite eloquent and composed when she hosts Met HD Live broadcasts such as Werther.
The director Francesca Zambello mounted the recent (Washington National Opera, I think) production of Porgy and Bess, which was well received. That production was mounted by San Francisco Opera in 2009, and a fine Blu-ray is available from the same label. It altered the period and settings in an abstract way to obscure the poverty of Catfish Row and minimize critical carping about the source being racist or distasteful for modern audiences. To some degree the staging in this production of Show Boat is likewise careful in the portrayal of its black characters.
It's great that the San Francisco Opera makes these available, because they are terrific live performances, and San Francisco is one of the great opera cities in the US. Their production of Andre Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire is 15 years old now, but still sought out by collectors on DVD.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.