The Houston Grand Opera's production of "Show Boat" is as large and lavish as a luxury liner. Though pockmarked here and there by dents and dings, it has majesty well-suited to this all-American classic.
It's billed as the first full-blown revival of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's hit in half a century, boasting a 50-member cast doing a score of song-and-dance numbers ("Cotton Blossom," "Ol' Man River," "Bill"), a dozen different drops and sets, countless period costumes -- all of which looks like a million bucks, give or take.
But why is this "Show Boat" different from all other "Show Boat"s? At bottom, it isn't, but that's not the point. Making allowances for the odd anachronism, it's as strong a musical now as in 1927.
The Houston company has assembled an appealing cast, led by that congenital vaudevillian, Donald O'Connor. One of the show's high spots has O'Connor, as Cap'n Andy, doing a soft-shoe on the midway at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. In another, he has a fistfight with himself while going on for errant actors in the Cotton Blossom's production of "The Parson's Bride." As his bossy wife Parthy, Avril Gentiles recalls Margaret Hamilton playing the Wicked Witch of the West.
Karla Burns lends stature and spirit to Queenie, the Cotton Blossom's mother superior, while Lonette McKee is a sultry, spicy Julie, the star who gets chased off the Cotton Blossom as half "a case of miscegenation," and later reappears at the Trocadero in Chicago to sing a smoky rendition of "Bill."
Bruce Hubbard seems a decent-enough singer, but his stiff-legged, poker-faced Joe doesn't measure up to that of, say, Alvy Powell, who sang the role, charismatically, last year at the Harlequin Dinner Theater. As for the rest, they're pleasant, competent and not terribly memorable.
Still, steering such a show is a titanic undertaking, and director Michael Kahn and choreographer Dorothy Danner have done admirably, aided by set designers Herbert Senn and Helen Pond, who give us five different views of the Cotton Blossom alone. SHOW BOAT -- At the Opera House through April 16.