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Monday, July 08, 2019

It Keeps On Rolling Along

AS SOON AS THE OVERTURE STARTS and you hear the banjo in the rhythm section, you know you’re off to a very different era. The Glimmerglass Festival kicked off its 2019 season last Saturday with “Show Boat,” which is one of the finest productions of any show that I’ve seen anywhere, which covers a lot of time and spaces. There’s long been a phony divide between opera and musical theater, but this company, under artistic director Francesca Zambello’s guidance, has proven that no such thing exists.

Justin Hopkins with members of the ensemble.
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
What makes this production such a success is the combination of top-notch talent and a total commitment to the integrity of the piece. And a potentially troublesome piece it is.

It was troublesome when it premiered, nearly a century ago. Adapted from a novel by Edna Ferber, this tale of love and loss in a theatrical setting already made it an excellent vehicle for the stage, but it also addressed racial issues that Broadway wasn’t accustomed to dealing with.

The showboat is the Cotton Blossom, arriving in Natchez on a pleasant day in 1890. Leading lady Julie La Verne (Alyson Cambridge) is revealed by a jealous suitor to be bi-racial, thus (according to then-current law) invalidating her marriage to Steve Baker (Charles H. Eaton). Although they cleverly dodge the miscegenation issue, she is legally prohibited from performing, thus opening the way for young Magnolia Hawks (Lauren Snouffer) to take over the leads. This is excellent news for her father, Cap’n Andy (Lara Teeter), who runs both the boat and its productions, and anathema to her mother, Parthy Ann (Klea Blackhurst), who maintains a Puritan sense of showbiz as sin.

As these events unfold, there’s commentary by Queenie, the ship’s cook, and Joe, her husband, played by Judith Skinner and Justin Hopkins. Both are African-American, both have been traveling with this troupe for a while. Both are inclined to express world-weary views. In Queenie’s case, it’s the song “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” which, although started by Julie, is understood to be Queenie’s number, and forms the basis of an energetic ensemble piece (where Eric Sean Fogel’s choreography is stunning, as it is throughout the show).

Joe has the iconic “Ol’ Man River,” which requires a strong voice and presence – not surprisingly, as it was written with Paul Robeson in mind. Hopkins lets his amazing voice do the work for him, first time through solo, second time with a chorus of nine barge men, both times garnering a huge swell of applause.

From a contemporary perspective, there’s a hint of the Magical Negro about those songs, suggesting that these characters are tuned into a more powerful perspective than their social betters, but from a contemporaneous perspective, these characters were lifted out of the mire of oppressive cliché. Broadway in 1927 was still struggling to evolve from the days of minstrelsy. Even with the success of 1921's all-black “Shuffle Along,” the color lines were still quite rigid – so the integrated cast of “Show Boat” caused quite a stir. But what’s most remarkable about the piece is what we don’t see (and don’t think to look for) today: the exaggerated mannerisms and dialogue clichés that would continue to be forced upon audiences by Hollywood for decades to come.

Composer Jerome Kern had been working for several years towards achieving a popular show that would integrate its songs as part of the dramatic structure. As the 20th century dawned, songs were applied to musicals like bon-bons on a cake; opera and, to a lesser extent, operetta offered the exceptions. During the late 1910s, Kern collaborated with lyricist P.G. Wodehouse on a very successful series of musicals in New York’s tiny Princess Theatre, which were lauded for their humor and integration of song and book; Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics for “Show Boat” show the Wodehouse influence in songs like “Life upon the Wicked Stage,” and there’s even the recycled Kern-Wodehouse “Bill,” cut from a 1918 Princess Theatre show (and set to a tune Kern wrote in 1906 – the music always came first in a Kern song).

(From left) Spencer Hamlin, Justin Hopkins, Abigail Paschke,
Judith Skinner, Lauren Snouffer, Lara Teeter, and Schyler Vargas.
Photo: Connor Lange/The Glimmerglass Festival
Ellie is the company soubrette, played by the vivacious Abigail Paschke, and it’s she who so effectively sings “Life upon the Wicked Stage.” Ellie is married to Frank (Schyler Vargas), who joins her in pursuing a vaudeville career as we move into the 20th century, and they have a delightful showcase in the vintage chestnut “Goodbye, My Lady Love.” (Even with so many fine original songs, there was room for more “After the Ball,” “At a Georgia Camp Meeting,” and “A Hot Time in the Old Town” adding to the period authenticity.)

Almost everyone in this show needs to sing and dance well, but the casting celebrates a variety of specialties. Michael Adams, who plays Gaylord Ravenal, the itinerant, charming gambler with whom Magnolia falls in love, brings a rich, operatic voice to “Where’s the Mate for Me?,” and skillfully duets with Snouffer in the iconic “Make Believe,” a breakthrough song for its time.

Lara Teeter’s Andy brings a lighter voice to the mix, but his specialty is eccentric dance, culminating in a virtuoso sequence in which he acts out the finish of an interrupted performance. He and Blackhurst, who plays his wife, Parthy, give a believable portrait of an uneasily married couple without falling into annoying caricature, yet without missing their laughs.

A magnificent orchestra, under the baton of James Lowe, gives full voice to the score. You won’t find an ensemble this size in a Broadway pit, and what you do hear there is recklessly amplified. Peter J. Davison’s sets have a colorful carnival look for the showboat, while Mark McCullough’s lighting shades the emotional vicissitudes with appropriate colors. By the time Hopkins returns to reprise “Ol’ Man River,” we’ve been guided through a heart-wrenching journey, made effective by director Zambello’s dedication to the truth of the story, which comes to us with all its integrity intact.

Kern and Hammerstein turned a sprawling novel into a Broadway spectacle, pushing many boundaries of tradition and society. The intervening years have continued those changes, making some aspects of this show seem merely quaint, but a production like this one, which takes the piece on its own terms and makes the most of it, packs a powerful punch.

Show Boat

Music by Jerome Kern
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the novel by Edna Ferber
James Lowe, Conductor
Francesca Zambello, Director   
Eric Sean Fogel, Choreographer
Glimmerglass Festival, July 6, 2019
The production runs through August 24, 2019.
More information here.

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