Review: Aboard San Francisco Opera’s “Show Boat”: Showy Cast, Abundant Show-stoppers – June 1, 2014

San Francisco became the fourth city – after Chicago, Houston and Washington D.C. – visited by the Francesca Zambello production of Jerome Kern’s 1927 blockbuster musical “Show Boat”.

I had previously reported on its opening run at the in Chicago [see Team Zambello Shows off “Show Boat” to Chicago’s Lyric Opera – March 14, 2012].

Even though I liked the new production and the performances at Chicago Lyric, I was amazed at the strength and depth of the San Francisco cast, who, I believe, achieved performance levels that I doubt have been excelled in “Show Boat’s” 87-year history.

[Below: The headliners of the “Cotton Blossom’s” live show – from left, Ella Mae Chipley (Kirsten Wyatt, waving in red and white dress), Frank Schultz (John Bolton, in white pants), Cap’n Andy Hawks (Bill Irwin, in blue uniform), Julie La Verne, waving in purple top) and Steve Baker (Patrick Cummings, in red coat) – greet the townspeople at the levee; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Operatic Voices, Broadway Voices and the Sound Design

Regular readers of my reviews will know that I share with Ms Zambello the conviction that the great classics of American musical theater are (and should be more universally recognized as) a substantive part of America’s contribution to the field of opera.

I also concur with San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley’s expressed opinion that the first rank opera companies have the full range of resources that are needed to give the classic American musicals the kinds of performances they deserve.

Yet, there are many ways that Broadway is often superior to what one would expect from even a top tier opera company – such as the spirited dance ensembles that are such an important feature of the American musical. Few opera singers have the facility at dancing as do so many of the musical theater stars, and may not be as facile in delivering spoken dialogue as their theatrically trained counterparts.

[Below: Gaylord Ravenal (Michael Todd Simpson, standing) suggests to Magnolia Hawks (Heidi Stober, seated) that they make believe they are in love; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Zambello’s solution is to blend opera singers with stars of musical theater. Accomplishing this goal, however,  presupposes which category of singer should be considered for each principal part. In the case of this production, each of the four cities the “Show Boat” visited had a somewhat different mix of opera and musical theater singers.

The San Francisco show has re-distributed the voices between the operatically-trained and theatrically-trained, from what was seen and heard in Chicago. Most importantly, the lead role of Magnolia Hawks is sung by San Francisco’s star lyric soprano Heidi Stober, with the roles of Gaylord Ravenal, Julie LaVerne, Joe and Queenie, as in Chicago, assigned to major opera singers.

The light comedy singing roles – Ellie Mae Chipley (Kirsten Wyatt), Frank Schultz (John Bolton) and Steve Baker (Patrick Cummings) – are, as in Chicago, performed by musical theater stars. The largely speaking roles of Cap’n Andy and his shrewish wife Parthy are taken by major comic actors, respectively Emmy winner Bill Irwin and Harriet Harris.

[Below: Ellie Mae Chipley (Kirsten Wyatt) joins the dance company in a “show-stopper” to end a scene; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The result is a sequence of scenes that quickly shift between combinations of operatic and musical theater voices, musical numbers and spoken dialogue – much of the latter occurring simultaneously with musical passages played by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in its open pit.

Morris Robinson’s Joe

The operatic voices are not amplified for their major musical numbers.

One of the largest of the “opera voices” is the sonorous basso of Morris Robinson.  His beautifully sung Ol’ Man River, predictably, gained one of the performance’s sustained ovations

[Below: Joe (Morris Robinson) expresses his world view to the Mississippi River; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


However, to achieve a proper balance of sound appropriate to the 3200-seat War Memorial Opera House, a technologically elaborate sound system has been created by sound designer Tod Nixon.

All principals wear body microphones that are employed at appropriate times (such as during spoken dialogue), so that what the audience hears is a uniformly balanced sound throughout the performance.

Heidi Stober’s Magnolia Hawks 

Stober previously has performed five principal roles over the San Francisco Opera’s past four seasons with great distinction. Throughout these seasons her bright-sounding lyric soprano and consummate acting skills held their own even when she shared the stage with such luminaries as Ramon Vargas, Albina Shagimuritova, Nathan Gunn and Bryn Terfel [See Perfect Game: Gunn, Shagimuratova Shine in New Kaneko-Designed “Magic Flute” – San Francisco Opera, June 13, 2012.]

However, her performance as Magnolia Hawks, unambiguously the lead role in this iconic musical (particularly the Zambello version in which Magnolia’s active career spans four decades), is the role in which Stober’s star quality has been most obvious.

[Below: Front of stage from left to right, Magnolia Hawks (Heidi Stober, center, in light blue dress, arm outstretched) and Julie La Verne (Patricia Racette), Queenie (Angela Renee Simpson, in white apron) and Joe (Morris Robinson) in the finale of  the song “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Michael Todd Simpson’s Gaylord Ravenal

Each of the previous cities sported a different Gaylord Ravenal (baritones in Chicago and D.C. and a tenor in Houston). San Francisco’s Ravenal was Michael Todd Simpson, who sang the role at the Kennedy Center.

Simpson’s remarkable range encompasses such bass-baritone roles as Escamillo [See Costa-Jackson, Diegel, Matanovic and Simpson Excel in Glimmerglass Opera’s “Carmen” – August 13, 2011.] Yet, he seemed comfortable in a part that is usually (but not always) associated with the tenor voice.

Ravenal and Magnolia sing Make Believe, one of the most-esteemed love duets in the American songbook. Stober and Simpson resonated in what clearly was a genuine expression of their characters’ mutual attraction, yet, in Simpson’s slightly reserved delivery, one senses that Ravenal’s gambling addictions and his affinity for reckless behaviors lurk just below the surface.

[Below: Gaylord Ravenal (Michael Todd Simpson, standing, front right, in grey overcoat) celebrates the future times when luck comes his way; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Patricia Racette’s Julie La Verne

The most arresting portrait of the performance was Patricia Racette’s characterization of Julie La Verne, the Show Boat’s former headliner, who leaves the show when local authorities charge her with being of mixed race.

The idea of states legislating against “miscegenation” seems quaint in this age of “blended families” (as does the show’s dialogue that suggests that a white person who knows a song sung by black folks must be of “mixed” descent).

Yet, the destructive impact of racism on La Verne’s career was a shocking theme when “Show Boat” was created nearly nine decades ago.

Racette’s performance as Julie, with her ensemble number Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine and her powerful solo, Bill, was a masterpiece of nuance. Sung by one of the greatest of contemporary dramatic sopranos, it is luxury casting on the part of the San Francisco Opera management, but worth a big chunk of the ticket price. The ovations were loud and long.

[Below: the career of Julie La Verne (Patricia Racette) has been destroyed, first by racism, then by alcoholism; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera. ]


Angela Renee Simpson’s Queenie

The parts of Magnolia, Ravenal, Julie La Verne and Joe are each associated with one or more timeless “standards”. However, it is the part of Queenie, nicely sung by Angela Renee Simpson, who has benefited especially from the performance edition used for this production.

Not only has the haunting ballad Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’, cut from the show before its opening night on Broadway, been restored, but Queenie is a leading figure in several of the many “show-stoppers” that contain brilliant dance routines, choreographed by Michele Lynch. These include a late addition to the production, Queenie’s ragtime Hey, Fellah! near the show’s end.

[Below: Queenie (Angele Renee Simpson, front center, in red dress); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The second half of “Show Boat” which covers several decades (in one routine a dancer representing New Year’s Day moves the calendar forward from 1900 to 1920) has both alternative plot devices and alternative music from which Zambello and her production team was to choose.

[Below: Magnolia Hawks (Heidi Stober, center) becomes a headliner for the Ziegfield Follies; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


John DeMain, a supreme authority on the American musical and such American masterworks as George Gershwin and DuBose Heywood’s “Porgy and Bess” and Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah”, conducted.

The sets were by Peter J. Davison, with lavish, eye-catching costumes by Paul Tazewell.


I recommend this production and cast without any reservations, both for the experienced operagoer and for a person new to musical theater being staged by an opera company, especially those theatergoers who have never attended an opera performance at the War Memorial Opera House.