‘Show Boat’ Sails onto HGO Stage

13 Jan

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When Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat premiered on Broadway in 1927, it ushered in an entirely new era for American musical theater. Prior to Show Boat’s realistic displays of racism in America and the fallout faced from loving the wrong man, theatergoers were treated to the fun frivolity of operetta and a parade of musical revues.

Based on Edna Ferber’s novel of the same name, Show Boat changed everything.

So, if you’re looking to see one of the touchpoints for the American musical, you’re in luck. Houston Grand Opera mounts a new production of the show, opening this Friday. And if you’re thinking, “What’s an opera company doing presenting a musical?” HGO Artistic Director and Music Director Patrick Summers offers a primer:

Show Boat is a unique hybrid work for the musical stage, that sits directly between what became the great era of American musical theater, and the grander European operettas that proceeded it,” says Summers, who is conducting the production. “Show Boat is best revealed today in an opera company with a great orchestra that is the same size that Kern would have encountered in his career, and great singers with radiant and beautiful voices which were the style of singer in that era, and a production that is on the scale of any grand opera.”

It’s an epic piece following the lives of those living and working on and for the Cotton Blossom, a riverboat that sails along the Mississippi. The action follows nearly 40 years, from the opening scenes in the Gilded Age of the lat 1880s to the pre-Depression in 1927. The musical that gave rise to the classic “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” Show Boat tackles American themes in a distinctly American voice. Summers says audiences will have no trouble connecting with the show’s messages.

“It tells the story of a single mother who chose the wrong partner, but yet had a very passionate relationship for a time with that partner, and that is an ongoing story of human kind.”

He says, too, that it offers a window on a world that’s lost to us today. “Now we bridge rivers and they are just encumbrances for us to get to the other side, but in the era of the great show boat, rivers were the source of everything, and Show Boat tells that story in a remarkable way, and this is a work in which the music tells the story to a far greater extent than one encounters in most musicals.”

A co-production with Chicago Lyric Opera, San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera, Show Boat is directed by Francesca Zambello, who made her American directing debut at HGO in 1984 with Fidelio, and is renowned for her work in both opera and theater. The cast features several singers making their debuts on the HGO stage, including Sasha Cooke, Joseph Kaiser, Lara Teeter, Melody Moore and Morris Robinson.

Its very hybrid nature should appeal both to opera lovers who enjoy the richness of opera singing, as well as those who may never have been to an opera but are familiar with Broadway musicals.

“Our production of Show Boat will display voices that naturally radiate and fill a large space with minimal assistance from amplification, quite unlike the experience of many musicals of the current age, which are amplified like rock concerts,” Summers says. “Show Boat is everything from the grandest of opera singer to musical theater ingénue warbling to vaudeville and of course dance music in the style of the wonderful 1930s musicals that Kern wrote for RKO’s films for Astaire and Rodgers.  So what you have in Show Boat is an extra wide range of musical and performance style, and an opera company can really deliver that.”

Photo: Houston Grand Opera

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