San Francisco Show Boat on DVD

Jerome Kern’s Show Boat by the San Francisco Opera

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Show Boat.

Well addressing that soft spot is the San Francisco Opera’s 2014 gala production of this classic piece of Americana. OperaMetro strongly votes for the DVD release on, somewhat paradoxically, two EuroArts DVDs. Photos from this to follow below.

It’s a soft spot because Show Boat, along with My Fair LadySouth PacificOklahoma and the like, was my introduction to classical American musical theater. All on LP back then, though sometimes on film. I was too young for Broadway. These were followed soon after on our trusty old turntable by classical British musical theater, in the form of Pirates of Penzance and Mikado, our first Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and, only a little later, by classical Viennese operettas such as Fledermaus and The Merry Widow (my Mother’s doing) and Götterdämmerung (on your own now kid!) which, specifically the last mentioned, though not exactly of the same genre as Show Boat or even Fledermaus, was nonetheless part of my musical growth. Phenomenal points of entry, remember?

It would be a long time before I realized just how far down the river of time Show Boat was in our musical history. As I had just logged but one and a half myself, it’s not surprising that I was as yet still inattentive to the changing musical styles over the decades of recorded music. I didn’t have the chronology of it all. At what point does a kid really grasp time and history?

After all, the sound of the Show Boat record we had and the singers on it (Robert Merrill and Patrice Munsel, as I recall, maybe even Risë Stevens) were from ‘today’ as far as I was concerned, not from the past. Nor was I aware of the deeper, uglier, more sorrowful social issues touched on in Show Boat. That old LP had all the greatest hits but only a sketchy synopsis.

Sure the 1936 black and white film of Show Boat with Irene Dunne, Allen Jones, Helen Morgan, and Paul Robeson looked and sounded dated, especially on our old TV. The splashy MGM color remake from 1951 with Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, and Ava Gardiner looked better, especially in a real movie theater, but, again, these didn’t suggest the age of the actual show nor really dig into the issues.

John McGlinn’s tour-de-force EMI/Angel three CD album of everything you ever wanted to know about Show Boat (but were afraid to ask… three and a half hours of music, the actually complete complete show (not a typo) plus ample addenda of discards and add-ons) opened my eyes to the breadth and complexity of this musical landmark (and more). It literally took my breath away. So did our first Show Boat live on a stage: the Hal Prince/Susan Stroman production on Broadway in October, 1994. My review for a newspaper (here unnamed) was hugely positive.

Heidi Stober as Magnolia Hawks and Michael Todd Simpson as Ravenal

Heidi Stober as Magnolia Hawks and Michael Todd Simpson as Ravenal

So now, twenty years later, we have a Francesca Zambello/Michele Lynch production of Show Boat for San Francisco, with sets designed by Peter J. Davison and with the SFO orchestra and chorus conducted by John DeMain.

How does it stack up to my remembrance of things past?

The structural flaws of Show Boat are evident when the whole thing is laid out on the stage in front of you, as was for me in ’94 or here today on the DVD. Marvelous and enticing as albums of the hit tunes can be, for the music and lyrics are wonderful, they miss the rather obvious dilemma Jerome and Oscar faced: the first quite long half of the story is about ‘true’ love and Magnolia’s artistic awakening; the second shorter half is a patchwork of songs and numbers strung together to extend the act and mark passing time, followed, in the show, by a Broadway feel-good reconciliation between Gay and Magnolia and daughter Kim. In fact, this ending is not in Edna Ferber’s famous 1926 novel by the same title, the source of the show in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all about good music and the reconciliation between loved ones, so this is not a complaint. I weep at these things…the first half of Show Boat, nearly as long as all of Puccini’s happily ending Turandot, is well constructed, but the second half is just patched together and, a little performance history here, would be continually added to and subtracted from on stage and in films over the ensuing years. For better or worse, the 1936 film has a bunch of new songs that are not in the original score.

The San Francisco Opera production deals with the content admirably and creatively, as did the ’94 Broadway production. For one thing, Magnolia’s daughter Kim shines here, though not as much as Kern would write for her character in later versions of the show. In the ’36 film Kim has a lot of starlet performing; here at the SFO’s dock she is merely grown up and back on the show boat with Nola. Her name, incidentally, is not short for ‘Kimberly,’ but rather she was acronymically named for the spot on the river where she was born: the Ohio River meets the Mississippi River, bordered by the states Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri. As Kim says in the book, “Imagine Mississippi Ravenal!...I mean, an actress named Sippy? It sounds half-witted, for some reason. Kim’s bad enough, God knows.”

Heidi Stober shines as Magnolia Hawks, growing from a happy, girlish, relatively pampered and maternally protected daughter on her father’s show boat, the Cotton Blossom, into, by necessity, a confident, successful performer who is also a single parent with a broken heart. For all of Gaylord Ravenal’s sweet love talking, he never seemed to translate his marriage vows into a steady income. A ‘wastrel’ is what his not-so-doting mother-in-law calls him. For all that, Michael Todd Simpson makes a smooth and dashing Ravenal. Both he and she sing together well: their duet “You are love" is heavenly, just as suave as the very best duets from the Viennese operetta repertory.

The comic couple (most operettas have a comic couple to offset the ‘noble’ lovers) is Ellie Mae Chipley, sung by Kirsten Wyatt, and Frank Schultz, sung by John Bolton. They play it for genuine laughs, but know when to play it seriously when Nola needs them in Act II.

Julie La Verne, sung here by Metropolitan Opera soprano Patricia Racette, gets two of the show’s hit songs, “Can’t help lovin’ dat man” and “Bill,” and also provides emotional depth to the story. Racette is soulful and sad, but always supportive of her ‘kid sister’ Nola.

Morris Robinson is a resonate Joe. His “Ol’ man river” brings down the house; the song serves, as does the metaphoric river, to mark the passage of time. Whereas Act I takes place in 1887 on the river, Act II sprints into the 1920’s. The river don’t change, nor does Joe. Angela Renée Simpson is an exuberant Queenie, doing her thing in Act I, as well as getting an added solo in Act II.

Bill Irwin provides slick laughs as Cap’n Andy Hawks and Harriet Harris is a fearsome Parthy Hawks. They play off each other as if they were really married that long.

John DeMain’s conception of Kern’s marvelous score is more measured, compared to the more upbeat reading by conductor Jeffrey Huard for the Hal Prince production in ’94. DeMain moves it along at the pleasing, gentle, steady pace one imagines life was like back then, giving life and exuberance to the dance numbers as needed.

(No, my memory of the ’94 show is not that good…I’ve come to think of my Broadway cast CD recording as an external memory aid here.)

Set Designer Peter J. Davison solves the problem of frequent scene changes with a large segmented postered wall that comes and goes across the stage. The two story show boat itself functions as both an exterior and interior for the action.

Francesca Zambello doesn’t back away from the social issues, any more than Oscar Hammerstein II did, but neither does she (nor he, for that matter) let the issues change the overall mood of the musical. It’s ‘one big happy family,’ as Cap’n Andy is fond of saying, when in real life it wasn’t so happy for a lot of American citizens. The river don’t change much.

So sample the San Francisco Opera’s Show Boat on EuroArts DVD (a second DVD consists of bonus interviews with the cast members, etc.). It is a solid recreation of America’s greatest Broadway musical.

SFO Show Boat photo: Cory Weaver

If the SFO Show Boat sparks your further research into the show, seek first of all John McGlinn’s reconstruction of the original production on 3 EMI/Angel CDs with Frederica von Stade, Jerry Hadley, Teresa Stratas and Bruce Hubbard; for in-depth documentation about the Ferber novel, the original Broadway production, the major revivals, and the films (which are available on DVD), seek Miles Krueger’s Show Boat: The Story of a Classical American Musical, published by Da Capo Press, New York, 1977. Or read the original Edna Ferber novel Show Boat; my edition is a recreation of the original publication by Doubleday Page & Co. in 1926.

Show Boat it is, Götterdämmerung it ain’t. Thank goodness! One can’t dance about in the kitchen to or hum the tunes, such as they are, from Götterdämmerung. Each genre in its proper place, right? Come to think of it, there's a river in...

Drift along with your fancy. Enjoy. J