A grand “Show Boat” at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Written by Jerome Kern (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics), Show Boat broke the mold when it premiered in 1927. Most Broadway shows at the time were frivolous trivialities with titles like The Five O’Clock Girl, Little Nellie Kelly and Yes, Yes, Yvette (not to be confused with No, No, Nanette) that played for a few months and were quickly forgotten. Show Boat revolutionized the American Musical genre by introducing a serious plot line with sophisticated tunes mostly designed to advance the narrative.

Based off of Edna Ferber’s 1926 book (which my friend, and date for press night, read and reviewed on her blog in prep for Lyric’s production), this epic musical takes us from 1890s Mississippi to the roaring ’20s in Chicago as the main players on a traveling show boat deal with romance, heartache, thwarted dreams and bitter racial tensions. The show has undergone many revisions — most notably in the mid ’90s when director Harold Prince reworked the show for an acclaimed Broadway revival.

Watching Lyric Opera’s glorious and bold recreation of the original 1927 version of the show (with a few cuts, according to this interview with director Francesca Zambello) through this historical lens, Show Boat is a masterpiece.

However, at nearly three hours running time, it’s also a creaky barge of a musical that highlights how far this unique genre of theatrical storytelling has come. If you can make it through the clunky song set-ups (“Sing that song you love so much, Queenie!”) and minimal character development (the main love interests Gaylord and Magnolia profess their devotion to each other disturbingly quickly) without rolling your eyes too much, than you’re a better person than I.

On the other hand, there’s a certain timeless charm that comes with musicals of this period. And, ultimately, that charm overcomes any mustiness.

Leading the cast of nearly 80 players (!) we have a mix of international opera stars, Broadway pros and Chicago stalwarts. The combination of these varied performance styles mostly works. As expected, there are times where the opera singer projection results in some broad characterizations, but that’s mostly kept in check by Zambello. Meanwhile, the musical theatre actors might learn a thing or two about projection — from where I was sitting, their lines were nearly gobbled up in Lyric’s cavernous space, even with (minimal) amplification assistance.

As the two love birds, opera hunk Nathan Gunn is a dashing Gaylord Ravenal and Broadway belle Ashley Brown makes for a sweetly sung and perfectly giddy Magnolia. Brown, who played Belle in Beauty and the Beast and originated the title role in the hit Broadway production of Mary Poppins, becomes the focal point in act two as her character goes through some rather tough hardships, and she equips herself nicely, turning a potentially trite role into someone relatable. As the tragic Julie, Alyson Cambridge sends shivers with her impeccably sung “Bill.” And, delivering probably the most well-known song from the show, bass Morris Robinson bellows out a satisfying “Ol’ Man River.”

As our scene stealers for the evening, we have the trio of Ross Lehman (offering a high-spirited Captain Andy), Angela Renée Simpson (whose warm and belty mezzo cuts through the crowd in her showtopping “Queenie’s Ballyhoo”) and Ericka Mac (as the high-strung showgirl Ellie).

But perhaps the most compelling reason to see this production is to hear Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations, played by a luscious-sounding 40 piece orchestra under the baton of Maestro John DeMain. It’s been so long since I’ve heard a full string section in a theatre, I got a little misty eyed.

“Show Boat” plays through March 17 at Lyric Opera of Chicago. More info here >

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