Dallas — As opera companies continue the quest for new patrons (and donors), new operas have gone from an anomaly just over a decade ago—why take the risk when audiences still buy tickets for Puccini and Mozart’s greatest hits?—to the de rigueur. It’s now odd to see a major opera company season announcement that doesn’t include a world premiere, or at least a work that’s younger than five years. The Dallas Opera had three premieres in the 2015 calendar year, a record for them and certainly a risky but impressive feat for a company with such a large budget and loyal subscriber base.
Now TDO seems to be embracing another opera trend that has become more common: Programming works of musical theater. After all, there are plenty of musicals that can cross over into opera territory, such as Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music, R&H’s South Pacific and Carousel (which the Houston Grand Opera opens this weekend), plus The Most Happy Fella and others. Those shows might not attract the coveted “young” demographic—it’s not like any of the myriad popsicals from the past two decades would ever warrant an operatic treatment—but they should entice a newer gaggle of musical lovers who can pay a higher ticket price for lavish, more expensive-looking sets and costumes than are normally seen in regional and smaller-budget theaters.
Show Boat, the Dallas Opera’s first musical in its nearly 60-year history, is also on the list. It’s a perfect pick to launch what General Director and CEO Keith Cerny hopes to be a recurring trend, perhaps choosing a musical as often as every other season. As he has written on this site in his monthly Off the Cuff column, why should Broadway have all the fun?
That’s a reference to the idea that opera is overwhelmingly serious and tragic, and Broadway musicals are, well, there’s a reason it’s often called “musical comedy.” Not to say that there can’t be serious, dark themes mingling with those visuals of townsfolk twirling parasols and swinging around lampposts.
Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote the libretto and lyrics to Jerome Kern’s music for Show Boat, which premiered in 1927, had a hand of many of the genre’s most seminal works, from Show Boat—considered the first true book musical in the post-operetta era—to his legendary collaborations with Richard Rodgers. Show Boat, based on Edna Ferber’s novel, has many memorable tunes, and while its central characters are white showbiz folk, its heart is in the background story of the black characters who “do all the work while the white folk play.” There’s a powerful message about the country’s treatment of African-Americans, and any person with even one drop of black blood in them, decades after the Emancipation Proclamation—and well before the end of Jim Crow.
Critiquing racism, oppressive regimes and the subjugation of women would continue for Hammerstein, with such mammoth R&H musicals as 1943’s Oklahoma! (rightly considered the most important musical of the 20th century because of its successful integration of music, story, dance and psychological depth), The King and I, Carousel, The Sound of Music and South Pacific. The latter contains the most powerful anti-racism song in musical theater, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.”
The first song in Show Boat, “Cotton Blossom” (the name of the “floating palace theatre” of the title), begins with a controversial lyric, sung by the black ensemble. It’s often performed and recorded as “we all work on the Mississippi,” but it was written with the plural of the N-word instead of "we all." At Dallas Opera, in a production originally directed by Francesca Zambello for the Lyric Theatre of Chicago (which, by the way, will soon open The King and I), you’ll hear “colored folks work…” (The first construction never worked for me, because it’s clear that “we all” doesn’t mean everyone, certainly not the white folks; it diminishes the lyric’s impact.)
The benefit of seeing a musical performed by an opera company (aside from the sets and costumes) is, of course, the vocals. Unless you’re seeing a musical on Broadway, on a national tour or in one of the major regional theaters that specialize in musicals (such as Irving’s Lyric Stage), you don’t always get the best singers with the right vocal ranges for each role. And sadly, you don’t hear unmiked vocals, because musical theater vocalists are no longer trained to reach the back of a large concert hall.
And therein lies the biggest flaw with this production: The cast is a mix of performers from opera and Broadway, and their differences in vocal training are apparent. The Broadway folk don’t have the volume of their opera counterparts, and the opera singers don’t always capture the emotion and nuances of the musical lines. But, they mostly deliver where it really counts: This cast sings well-known tunes from the American songbook with verve and detailed attention to their powerful and poignant words. That’s especially true in the haunting “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Around’,” led by soprano Angela Renée Simpson as Queenie and a stellar chorus, directed by chorus master Alexander Rom. Likewise, bass Morris Robinson, as Joe, does justice to the dramatic heft of the musical’s most iconic song, “Old Man River.”
As Julie La Verne, the character who is on the receiving end of discrimination after it’s revealed that she is mixed race, soprano Alyson Cambridge shines in another memorable tune, “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man”; as well as in my personal favorite song, the witty “Bill,” which has lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse (of the Jeeves and Wooster books), originally written for another work. Mezzo-soprano Kate Loprest as Ella Mae Chipley is one of the performers whose lack of unmiked volume stands out in contrast to the opera-trained singers on stage.
As Gaylord Ravenal, dashing baritone Michael Todd Simpson has the volume and sings a charming “Make-Believe,” while soprano Andriana Chuchman makes Magnolia Hawks transformation from overlooked, excitable singer to Broadway star believable. Their daughter, Kim, plays a more prominent role in Ferber’s novel, where on the opening page, the author notes that her name works as an acronym for the three states where she might have been born—Kentucky, Illinois or Missouri—as the Cotton Blossom traveled up and down the Mississippi River. Katherine Pottkotter plays her as a young girl, and is a delight in a reprise of “Make-Believe” with Simpson.
Musical theater lovers will love character actress Mary-Pat Green (you’ve seen her in numerous TV guest spots) as the brassy Parthy Ann, wife of Cap’n Andy (Tony nominee Lara Teeter).
French conductor Emmanuel Villaume, Musical Director at TDO, excels with his first go at an American musical. The orchestra never covers the singers and maintains an appropriate pace—from swift rapids to calming pools, as necessary.
Stage director E. Loren Meeker has moments of stagnant staging, which can be awkward against set designer Peter J. Davison’s massive and vibrant boat, seat pieces and backdrops, and Paul Tazewell’s costumes (all rented from the original Chicago production). But it comes kinetically alive with Michele Lynch’s choreography with the black ensemble, using dancers from Dallas Black Dance Theatre II, highlighting African influences to remind us that despite how overworked and mistreated the African-American workers were, they never lost sight of cultural roots. It's really striking in contrast to the more Broadway dances for the white ensemble, with references to early 20th century social dance, classical ballet and French techniques.
Show Boat has been revived many times, with the occasional standout production praised for shedding new light on a 20th century cultural touchstone. The Dallas Opera’s staging doesn’t achieve that, but neither does it settle for creating a live diorama; a musical museum piece. But with attention to lyrics and the creators’ critique of turn-of-the-century race relations, it does remind why this seminal work of musical theater was important in the evolution of a great American art form.
» You can see Show Boat in a live simulcast at AT&T Stadium in Arlington on Saturday, April 23. Gates open at 6 p.m., show starts at 7:30 p.m. It's free, and so is parking. Online ticket reservations are no longer available, but walk-ups are welcome. See more info here.