While there is no such thing as an official version of the landmark musical Show Boat, the Lyric Stage production comes close to the original intentions. Actually, this sailing of Show Boat is more curated than produced.
Musical Director Jay Dias spent many tedious months researching Jerome Kern’s original 1927 score and Robert Russell Bennett’s orchestrations. Fans of the show will hear quite a bit of unfamiliar music, since many musical selections that were dropped over the years have been restored. If there was a residual feeling after seeing the final dress rehearsal on Wednesday, it was one of regret that economic limitations denied Lyric Stage the ability to add sets and costumes. Everything else is in place: First-rate cast, excellent chorus and full orchestra: 108 performers in all.
Much has been written about Show Boat. Various commentators have called it offensively racist while others have defended it as an accurate portrayal of an era that hardly endorses that reality. Audiences are thrust into this controversy from the very first word of the score—the highly inflammatory "N" word—sung by a black chorus. While other productions have changed this to "colored folk," producer Steven Jones decided that a restored version of everything else in the show shouldn’t shy away from what librettist Oscar Hammerstein II originally wrote. Jones said that it was discussed with the black members of the cast and that the production’s adherence to the integrity of the original was either absolute, or it wasn’t. Certainly, every other detail of the score has been scrupulously observed. So why not? Comedians such as Richard Pryor and Chris Rock used it to create much the same effect as Hammerstein intended.
Add to this plot twists and turns, including the depiction of an interracial marriage (true to Edna Ferber's original novel), complicated by the wife being of mixed blood who was "passing" for white.
The other controversy is what to call it. The original title was "An American Musical Play." In comparing it to George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Donald J. Grout, in his definitive Short History of Opera, said that both works have become American folk operas.
Operatic compositional conventions abound and come into their full glory when hearing this original 1927 version. Kern wrote an almost completely through-composed score. Must that is frequently cut now runs under almost all of the dialogue. Themes associated with the various characters and situations become Wagnerian leitmotifs that comment on the action. Other examples of compositional craft abound. For example, the opening motive that is sung to the words "Cotton Blossom" (the name of the boat), is later inverted and slowed down to become the opening notes of "Ol’ Man River." Also adding to the operatic feel of the score, Bennett uses a full Beethovian orchestra expanded by the addition of a banjo and guitar along with an onstage piano and off-stage pipe organ. In similar dramatic situations, Puccini used the organ to create "church" in his beloved opera Tosca (1900), and the onstage piano to similarly accompany a singer in La Rondine (1917).
The opera classification was obviously in mind when this production was cast. The astonishing bass, Keron Jackson, as Joe, is a perfect example. Local audiences will remember him from his appearance as the Lawyer in the Dallas Opera production of Porgy and Bess. His rendition of "Ol' Man River" alone is worth the price of admission. Martin Fox, as Gaylord Ravenal, brings a lovely lyric tenor voice with a solid top and the ability to float a terrific pianissimo phrase. Also able to tackle operatic roles are Laurie Bulaoro as Julie and Cecily Ellis-Bills as Magnolia (and later as her "spittin’ image" daughter, Kim). Megan Woodall, as Ellie, uses her squeaky soubrette soprano to great effect and would make an ideal Adele in Die Fledermaus. Ebony Marshall Oliver, as Queenie, belts it out in a delightfully sassy manner. She also leads the chorus on one of the original show's best songs, "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'," which, sadly, is rarely inculded in revivals.
While David Coffee lacks an operatic voice, the comic talents he displayed as Cap’n Andy would certainly be welcome in a number of opera buffo roles. Lois Sonnier Hart is his perfect foil as his long-suffering wife. Other secondary roles that were cast out of the chorus were all consistently excellent.
On the negative side of the operatic comparison, diction was often the victim of the singing line. Opera in English frequently uses supertitles to help overcome the eternal battle between vowels and consonants, and they would have helped here as well.
Director and choreographer Ann Nieman did the best she could, given the limitations of the space allotted in front of the seated performers and the concept of "In Concert," as the program proclaims. Without sets, props or costumes (everyone onstage wears contemporary black clothing), it was sometimes difficult to place the action and figure out exactly where we were: On the ship or in a convent, in a brothel or saloon. (It should be noted that the program was not ready at the final dress rehearsal, but the program does have a scene breakdown printed in it.)
The real hero of this production is Dias. He is a first-class conductor with a clear and expressive baton technique. Even though balance with the stage was assisted by amplification of the singers, he was always sensitive to the total effect and balance within the orchestration itself. His reading of the music was highly nuanced, and occasionally dragged. His attention to detail demonstrated a deep and comprehensive understanding of the score and the intentions of both the composer and the orchestrator.
Be prepared to sit for a while. Even though this ostensibly complete performance has some cuts, it still runs more than three-and-a-half hours. That's a small price to pay. It is indeed rare to have an opportunity to hear Show Boat in its original glory.