And then Morris Robinson sang “Ol’ Man River,” and finally, I got it. I can’t say that Robinson gave the most breathtaking performance of this song I ever heard, because Paul Robeson is indelibly embedded in my ear, and Robinson’s sound is a little thinner, a little more pushed or shoved up than that. That doesn’t matter, though, because he sang a really good “Ol’ Man River,” and because when I heard it, it was so clear what a cornerstone this song is of our shared musical heritage. All the European opera-lovers I know get to hear at least some music that has some resonance with their own culture; here’s music that speaks of ours, pretty profoundly, in a work that is every bit as worthy as plenty of operas in the standard canon. Here’s why Kern and Hammerstein’s “Show Boat” belongs in an opera house, especially an opera house bearing the word “national” in its name: It gives you a chance to connect the dots and get our own musical heritage into the picture.
And it gives you a chance to savor that heritage. “Show Boat” has gone through a bunch of different versions, in a bunch of different productions, but this three-hour version — a co-production by the Washington National Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Houston Grand Opera and the San Francisco Opera Association — includes several songs that aren’t always performed, including “Till Good Luck Comes My Way” and “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Round.”
Another reason this “Show Boat” deserves to be presented alongside operas: The acting and storytelling came through much better in the singing than in the speech. The two female leads, Andriana Chuchman as Magnolia Hawks and Alyson Cambridge as Julie, offered toe-curling, squeaky, Minnie-Mouse-style dialogue (the “Southern” accents didn’t help). But their singing was terrific. Cambridge stopped the show when Julie, washed-up and alcoholic after the revelation of her African American heritage ends her career on the show boat, gave a devastating rendition of “Bill.”
And Chuchman had a full, sure, glorious sound you wanted to sink into. When she and Michael Todd Simpson, as Gaylord Ravenal, sang their first duet, all of the characterization was clear in the music. He was a suave wannabe, superficially appealing but not enduring. And she was a person of warmth and substance and heart. I’m not sure this was entirely deliberate, but it didn’t really matter, because it worked.
Angela Renee Simpson, as Queenie, showed a pitfall of casting an operatic voice in this repertory: The part calls for a big, belting voice, and belting is not an arrow in Simpson’s quiver, which made for an incongruously delicate portrayal. Robinson, by contrast, sounded as much at ease as Joe as in any Met role. Both he and Simpson were also quite a bit better than some of their colleagues at the spoken dialogue, despite being saddled with some pretty dated material about shiftless no-count men and so forth; they communicated a genuine warmth and affection. “Show Boat” is about race relations, but it’s also about the ups and downs of long-term romantic relationships — a welcome change from most musicals, which tend to follow romance just as far as “happily ever after.”
Counterbalancing these two opera singers were the actors Lara Teeter and Cindy Gold as Capt. Andy Hawks and his wife, Parthy Ann. Teeter initially seemed wearingly overdone but gradually won me over. Bernie Yvon and Kate Loprest did just fine as the musical-buffa couple of Schulz and Schulz, Loprest with a nasal touch presaging Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls.”
The opera-house musical productions I’ve seen are never quite certain how far they want to go in the Broadway idiom, and this one was no exception. The two biggest issues are amplification — a dirty word to opera audiences — and dancing. It sounded as if amplification was used in moderation, notably in the scenes with Magnolia and Gaylord’s young daughter, Kim (a nicely straightforward Maya McGuire), but not enough to keep the singers from screaming their lines. And the dancing was provided in big production numbers that still felt a little restrained, not quite as over-the-top as their Broadway counterparts, for all of the stage-filling spectacle (though the dancers there were did yeoman service). No matter. Miking or not, this “Show Boat” was worth the ride, and I for one was grateful it came here, and happy when I left the theater.
“Show Boat” continues through May 26, with alternating casts, at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Rodney Gilfrey has withdrawn from the second cast; casting of Gaylord Ravenal for those performances is pending.