Y’all come on down to the levee folks. The “Show Boat” is in town and it’s a singin’, dancin’ romp. But is it an opera? Well, maybe more of an operetta, but who cares? In a spiffy production at San Francisco Opera (a co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera and Houston Grand Opera), the show — whatever it is — is gorgeous to look at, grand to listen to and at least old enough to be contemporaneous with late Puccini.
Steered by the crisp direction of Francesca Zambello and the sure baton of John DeMain, “Show Boat,” with its undercurrent of racial prejudice and inequality (shocking for its time), sails through the decades between the 1880s and post-WWI 1920s on the waves of a romance between Magnolia Hawks, daughter of a showboat captain and his rigid, overbearing wife, and a handsome gambler, Gaylord Ravenal. The pairing of soprano Heidi Stober and baritone Michael Todd Simpson as the lovers is one of the best things about this show. Great looking, with beautiful voices that blend wonderfully (never so well as in the gorgeous “You Are Love”), they are the romantic heart of the piece.
Also outstanding are Morris Robinson as the stevedore Joe, his “Ol’ Man River,” as always, the highlight of the evening, and Angela Renée Simpson as his wife, the lovable Queenie. Her two big solos, “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’” and “Hey Fella,” reveal a voice of power and warmth. Renowned soprano Patricia Racette, a San Francisco stalwart who also will sing the title role in “Madame Butterfly” during this summer season, is Julie, the mixed-race chanteuse who descends from leading lady to pitiful drunk during the course of the plot. Always a fine actress, Racette adds pop singer to her operatic resume with “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and, especially, the heartbreaking “Bill” in Act II.
That’s the good news. Some other parts, not so much. Bay Area favorite Bill Irwin clowned and mugged his way shamelessly through the role of Cap’n Andy, Magnolia’s father and the owner of the floating theater known as the Cotton Blossom. It’s hard to believe that this is the same guy who won a Tony for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” He has chosen here to return to his roots in the Pickle Family Circus and, frankly, less would have been more. Harriet Harris (familiar to TV addicts as Bebe, the pushy agent on “Frazier”) is more subdued and more effective as his wife. Also over-the-top were musical theater actress Kirsten Wyatt as Ellie Mae, whose singing voice was almost as annoying as her speaking style, and, to a lesser degree, John Bolton as her sincere but doltish suitor, Frank. They were the singing/dancing “comic couple” obligatory in the popular operettas of Kern’s day (actually, Puccini’s “La Rondine” has one too).
The San Francisco Opera Chorus was nothing short of magnificent, whether divided into “white folks” and “black folks” or combined, and DeMain’s orchestra did the score proud. Michele Lynch’s choreography, under dance master Lawrence Pech, looked great. This is a big show and it takes a big cast and a big stage to pull it off. Perfect for an opera house. Step right up ladies and gentleman, and hop aboard this “Show Boat” before it sails away.