“Showboat” at Lyric Opera of Chicago Keeps Rollin’ Along

United StatesUnited States   Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, Showboat: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago, John DeMain (conductor), Civic Opera House, Chicago. 25.2.2012 (JLZ)

Ravenal: Nathan Gunn
Magnolia: Ashley Brown
Julie: Alyson Cambridge
Joe: Morris Robinson
Queenie: Angela Renée Simpson
Capt. Andy: Ross Lehman
Ellie: Ericka Mac
Frank: Bernie Yvon
Parthy: Cindy Gold

Conductor: John DeMain
Director: Francesca Zambello
Scenery Designer: Peter J. Davison
Costume Designer: Paul Tazewell
Lighting Designer: Mark McCullough
Sound Designer: Mark Grey
Chorus Master: Michael Black
Choreographer: Michele Lynch

In her program note for Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of Showboat, director Francesca Zambello calls it “our opera,” part of the tradition of musicals in American culture. Yet in shifting the genre from musical theater, the statement raises more questions than it answers. In execution, though, this production is outstanding because it does not redefine Showboat as opera and presents this venerable piece without sacrificing the dialogue and dances that give the score its strong place in the repertoire. Later Zambello mentions her intent to cast opera singers and singing actors with experience in musical theater, and this strategy was clearly a success.

At the center are Nathan Gunn as Gaylord Ravenal and Ashley Brown as Magnolia Hawkes, whose relationship was convincingly expressed in the well-known “Make Believe.” The song uses the upper part of Gunn’s range, which at times seemed pushed when conductor John DeMain would linger on a phrase. (In “Make Believe,” “You Are Love” and “Bill,” DeMain’s slow tempos sometimes challenged the musical line and flow of the words, but also brought out the rhythms of the accompaniment.) Other than that, Gunn was right for the production, and his acting made the character of Ravenal believable.

As Magnolia – Nola as she is called in the second act – Brown gave a remarkable performance. The role is similar to Massenet’s Manon in that during the course of the work, the character develops from a young woman to a mature one. In the first act, Brown gave a fine sense of the ingénue, and in the second, presented herself believably as Nola took responsibility for her life. Her voice echoed the character change; the more tentative sounds in the first act found full voice in the second. Her attraction to Ravenal was convincing from the start, and in the later numbers, Brown showed fine delivery and style. With such a strong voice, it would be preferable if Zambello had given more Ziegfeld style to the “follies” number. Given the supernumeraries in the cast, it might have been useful for the audience to see the Ziegfeld number instead of just the shimmering blue curtain behind her.

As Queenie, Angela Renée Simpson gave a strong performance. The anxiety she shared in “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’” set up the stage aurally for the plot complications that followed, and in the second act, she showed her upper range in “Hey, Feller.” As her husband, Joe, Morris Robinson was outstanding. His interpretation – in a full, resonant bass – of the iconic “Ol’ Man River” anchored the production. Robinson’s acting was first-rate – enhanced by subtleties, eye contact with other actors, and a physical presence that conveyed Joe’s character without lapsing into stereotypes. As Julie, Alyson Cambridge gave a fine reading of a role that intersects the main story line. In “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat’ Man,” her diction was perhaps overly precise, but in “Bill, she gave the pathos the song requires.

The chorus delivered a firm sound, but their diction was also a problem in the opening number and its reprise. Yet in the choral version of “Ol’ Man River,” the men offered the text with welcome clarity. Part of the problem might have been the orchestra, which was sometimes louder than necessary; in the overture, the percussion was too dominant. That stated, DeMain delivered an effective ent’racte, as well as the exit music accompanying the curtain calls, all well deserved.

All in all, this production makes it possible to appreciate the qualities of Showboat as an exceptional piece of musical theater. Neither an opera nor an operetta, this important Broadway musical stands on its own in Lyric’s first-rate production, and its strong score and story merit attention without apology. At Lyric, it’s possible to hear it all: operas, operetta and musical theater, and the house’s international audiences expect excellent productions in all these genres – “our opera” here in Chicago.


James L. Zychowicz