Review: All aboard for points past

Portland Opera's splashy revival of Kern & Hammerstein's 'Show Boat' plies the waters of American theater and racial history

Of the three shows generally regarded as having transformed the Broadway musical from glittery variety show to new American storytelling form, Show Boat is the toughest to pin down. Its music, by Jerome Kern, is less organic and complex than George Gershwin’s for Porgy and Bess: though opera companies often adopt it, as they do Porgy, it’s more comfortable as a musical-theater piece, with a great popular-music score dominated by its individual songs and engaging style rather than continuing musical themes. Its story, by Oscar Hammerstein II based on a rambling novel by Edna Ferber, is far more episodic than the more tightly woven book that Hammerstein wrote for Oklahoma!

Hannah S. Penn as the secretly mixed-race leading lady Julie, with chorus. Photo: Cory Weaver

Hannah S. Penn as the secretly mixed-race leading lady Julie, with chorus. Photo: Cory Weaver

But Show Boat came first, hitting the Broadway stage in 1927 (Porgy and Bess followed in 1935; Oklahoma! in 1943). It set the template, both in long-form musical storytelling and its willingness to take on serious cultural issues – most notably, America’s post-Reconstruction Jim Crow heritage and its continuing ineptitude in racial matters. In a current atmosphere roiled by flashpoints in Baltimore, Ferguson, and North Charleston on top of longstanding systemic inequities, the racial discussion in Show Boat may seem cautious and outdated. But it was radical for its time, and as Portland Opera’s new production brings home, the show remains much more than a historical curiosity. It deserves its place of honor, even if it also needs to be understood in the context of its original time and place.

Show Boat is many things: a long family drama, a peek behind the doors of seemingly implacable racial attitudes, a tale of love and abandonment and eventual reconciliation. It’s also, as Portland Opera’s revival of the 1994 Harold Prince version makes abundantly clear, a show about show business: a subtle but unmistakable nostalgic parade of American popular-culture styles from the sweeping gestures of the Victorian stage to the hoary jokes and comic dance kicks of vaudeville to the razzmatazz of the Charleston era.

The Opera’s Show Boat, which opened Friday night in the wide-open spaces of Keller Auditorium, isn’t the knockout audiences might’ve hoped for. Its long first act can drag, the episodic second act inevitably gets a little sketchy, the mix of operatic and musical-theater singing styles can be a little jarring, and the expanse of the Keller, which is much too big for this epic yet also intimate show, makes both the voices and the acting seem distant: the show, in English, uses supertitles, and at least from the first balcony below the overhang, they were helpful verging on necessary. But even more goes right, including a smart and sassy performance by former company resident artist Lindsay Ohse, whose career is beginning to blossom, as romantic lead Magnolia. This Show Boat emerges as a satisfying, involving, and often slyly funny show, even if it doesn’t sweep you off your feet.

Arthur Woodley, as Joe, delivers "Ol' Man River." Photo: Cory Weaver

Arthur Woodley, as Joe, delivers “Ol’ Man River.” Photo: Cory Weaver

Part of what makes it work is director and co-choreographer (with Becky Timms) Ray Roderick’s subtle emphasis on the story’s showbiz setting. Roderick and scenic designer James Youmans smartly place the orchestra not in the pit but upstage, as if it were the house band on the Cotton Blossom, the riverboat that plies the Mississippi, bringing traveling shows to Natchez and points north and south. The orchestra helps fill the Keller’s wide stage, providing a sense of celebration and an illusion of fullness to Youman’s minimalist, mobile set, which relies on lighting and projections to insinuate time and place. It also pushes most of the action downstage, closer to the audience, which is a good thing in the cavernous Keller, where voices can become hopelessly muffled as singers move farther to the back. At key points Youmans provides a small rolling stage on the larger main stage, creating a sly theatrical echo chamber, like a Shakespearean play-within-a-play: characters in the play, who are show people, move in and out of the mini-stage, where, in the guise of the melodratic characters they play in the riverboat shows, they ham it up mightily before stepping back onto the larger stage and resuming a more realistic, if still presentational, acting style. It’s like a little rolling history of American stage fashion, from the days of Dion Boucicault to the flapper age; a theatrical nostalgia to go along with the cultural nostalgia of the play itself, which steeps itself in the culture of the postbellum South even as it roundly criticizes it.

It’s fascinating how the musical’s show culture blends into the play’s approach to race. In the end, Show Boat is important not so much for what it says about race in America – no profound insights here – as for the fact that, in its time and place as a big-budget Broadway show, it took on the gnarly questions of race at all. Show Boat gives its major black characters (the boat hand Joe, his boat-cook wife Queenie, the mixed-race star performer Julie) reduced opportunities and strictly controlled roles in the riverboat culture, where they are expected to support and defer: the evocations of Mammy culture are strong. Yet the show folk also are presented as looser and more liberal on racial matters than the towns they visit and the audiences they entertain. The boat is a little artists’ colony, bound to the rules and attitudes of the land but subverting them as much as possible, a little semi-independent vessel bobbing toward the future. Yes, Cap’n Andy has to cut Julie and her white husband Steve loose after her mixed-race status is revealed in Mississippi, where mixed marriage is a prison offense. But the people of the Cotton Blossom conspire in a ruse to at least let Julie and Steve slip away free and together, outside the reach of the law.

Roderick and his mixed cast of operatic and musical-theater singers do a generally fine job with the songs, and create some vivid scenes along the story’s picaresque journey. Ohse is nicely matched by the tall and dashing Liam Bonner as Gaylord Ravenal, the riverboat gambler who steals Magnolia’s heart. Bonner’s operatic singing style can seem a bit out of synch with the show’s more generally musical-theater approach to the songs, but dramatically, he gets to the fatal attraction of Ravenal’s odd blend of charm, honor, and weakness. Arthur Woodley, as Joe, rises grandly to the challenges of Ol’ Man River, and Angela Renée Simpson, as Queenie, eloquently states an underlying theme with the bluesy Mis’ry’s Comin’ Round. Megan Misslin as the show boat trouper Ellie May has great fun with the witty Life Upon the Wicked Stage, and resident-artist alum Hannah S. Penn, as the misfortunate Julie, brings an effective sad edge to her acting performance and a gritty weariness to the romantic ballad Bill. (There is a key moment in the second act when Julie makes a great sacrifice, and the scene is a rare slip-up in the staging, flying by so swiftly that you hardly notice it.)

Allen Nause and Susannah Mars as Cap'n Andy and Parthy Ann: bickering mates. Photo: Cory Weaver

Allen Nause and Susannah Mars as Cap’n Andy and Parthy Ann: bickering mates. Photo: Cory Weaver

Stage stalwarts Allen Nause and Susannah Mars are especially effective as Cap’n Andy and his parsimonious wife, Parthy Ann, who inexplicably disapproves of virtually every aspect of the life she’s chosen to lead. On Why Do I Love You they provide an illuminating demonstration of how good actors approach a song: Mars, a star of the musical-theater stage, with her deep understanding of the emotions inside the lyrics; Nause, not known as a vocalist, with a veteran actor’s instinctive feel for the rhythmic and dramatic nature of a song. Nause also brings down the house twice in grand comic style: first, in his one-man performance of the rest of a riverboat show after his star’s been knocked out of commission; second, when he ditches Parthy Ann on New Year’s Eve in Chicago and wanders in grand insobriety into the revels at the Trocadero nightclub. In a way, though Show Boat is mainly Magnolia’s story, Cap’n Andy is the thread that ties it all together, and Nause knows how to sew.

With additional songs like Make Believe, You Are Love, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, and the borrowed After the Ball, Show Boat is a treasury of great American song. Portland Opera seems to be committed to producing a musical-theater piece every season – 2016, the debut of its reinvention as a summer festival company, will bring Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd – and the opera is also the local presenter of the Broadway Across America series of touring musicals.

It’ll be interesting to see how those twin approaches to the art of the musical play out: a fresh look at classics in the opera-season slot, perhaps, while BAA continues to provide new stuff (and perennials like Wicked and The Phantom of the Opera, both haunting the Keller soon). Imported or domestic, musical theater seems to be flourishing in Oregon. It’s become a staple under Bill Rauch’s leadership at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and under Chris Coleman’s leadership at Portland Center Stage. Smaller companies such as Oregon Festival of American Music, Broadway Rose, Staged!, Clackamas Rep, Lakewood, and Stumptown provide regular infusions.

The presence of that culture underscores the importance of how Portland Opera chooses its projects, and how well it pulls them off: it’s not the only game in town, and its choices have to be canny, aimed not only at the box office but also at refreshing and interpreting important moments in the history of the form. Show Boat seems to fit that bill. But the 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium remains a serious impediment. From an artistic point of view, the city badly needs a new mid-sized theater, something between the Keller and the 870-seat Newmark: a hall of 1,400 to as high of 2,400 (if it’s well-designed for comparative intimacy) seats that could be shared by opera, ballet, and perhaps some other users. Politically and economically, the time for such a project doesn’t seem right, and wishful thinking won’t make it so. But the stakeholders should keep their eyes on the prize. It’ll never happen if it isn’t dreamed first.


Portland Opera’s Show Boat repeats at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 3; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 5; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 7; and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 9. Ticket information is here.


Mark Mandel’s review of Show Boat for The Oregonian is here.


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