Time was when American opera companies considered musicals as suspect artifacts from another planet, hardly worthy of serious attention -- not even on a par with the operettas those companies would occasionally stage when they needed a box office lift.
Bit by bit, thinking has changed at a lot of places, and a welcome thing, too.
Washington National Opera has enthusiastically embraced this broader view, offering an inspired staging of the path-breaking 1927 musical "Show Boat," a co-production with the Lyric Opera of Chicago (where it debuted last year) and a couple other companies.
If you still cringe at the thought of a work like this sharing the same stage as “Tosca” or “The Marriage of Figaro,” just get to the Kennedy Center. See if you can honestly resist the richness of Jerome Kern’s music and the breadth of Oscar Hammerstein’s adaptation of the epic Ferber novel.
Directed with sensitivity and imagination by Francesca Zambello, WNO’s new artistic director, this “Show Boat” glides onto the stage of the opera house as if it was always meant to dock there.
To begin with, it looks awfully good. Peter J. Davison sets are not lavish, but deftly evocative, and they move with a cinematic fluency particularly helpful in the constantly shifting scenes of Act 2. Paul Tazewell’s spot-on costumes and Mark McCullough’s refined lighting add greatly to the visual package.
What counts most is how Zambello gets the cast to animate the stage, creating fully dimensional characters, often in just a few seconds and just a few gestures. And how those performers, superbly guided by veteran conductor John DeMain, deliver Kern’s score with such freshness and nuance.
Conventional wisdom marks “Porgy and Bess,” created by George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward in 1935, as the first important American opera (it took a long while for anyone to treat it as more than a musical). Now, based on what Zambello has helped the WNO to achieve, I’m inclined to agree with her proposition that “Show Boat” is “both the first American musical and the first true American opera.”
When it comes to plot, “Show Boat” sure is operatic. It could easily be referred to by the title of an earlier Ferber novel, “So Big.” The action spans four decades and three states. In addition to nearly 20 roles, the work calls for a large, very active chorus.
The show is packed with an opera's worth of music, too, and not just the indelible hits, such as "Ol' Man River," "Make Believe," and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." Quality abounds in the score. "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'," for example, reveals remarkable depth and detail, quite on a par with what Gershwin achieved in "Porgy."
Even the underscoring of dialogue in "Show Boat" is beautifully written, and DeMain ensures that it all sounds as significant and expressive as the big numbers.
(The WNO production uses nearly all of the original Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations from 1927, along with some of Bennett's arrangements from the 1946 Broadway revival.)
It might be fun to experience, at least once, the first version of "Show Boat," which lasted more than four, Wagner-worthy hours. The more or less standard version -- the WNO production clocks in at about three hours (including intermission) -- leaves some parts of the story sketchy and, in Act 2, crazily rushed.
But the saga still holds up, still grabs. And the tough issues raised along the way -- racism, drugs, alcoholism, gambling addiction, marital breakups -- obviously still have relevance. Yes, there are stereotypes and creaky plot points, but they are easily tolerated in a good staging, and that's certainly the case here.
Zambello doesn't go in for any deconstructionism or heavy emphasis. She treats the material with respect, and that makes all the difference. There is something fresh and involving at every turn in the production (OK, not every turn -- streamers get popped too often onstage).
As Magnolia, daughter of the show boat's captain and smitten with the stage, Andriana Chuchman creates an endearing portrayal and sings in a sweet, sure soprano.
Alyson Cambridge leaves an impressive mark as Julie, the popular star who passes as white until running afoul of local miscegenation laws when the show boat pulls into Natchez.
The soprano's burnished tone and authentic, compelling phrasing reach a peak in "Bill," the Act 2 ballad for a now abandoned, bottle-dependent Julie. Cambridge styles the song superbly, never exaggerating a note for effect, and making it a deeply poignant moment.
Michael Todd Simpson cuts an elegant figure as Gaylord Ravenal, the river gambler who sweeps up the naive Magnolia. The baritone may strain for some high notes, but the rest of the singing is terrific; note, especially, his suave phrasing in "Make Believe" and "You Are Love."
Morris Robinson brings dignity, charm and vocal gold to the role of Joe; his rich-toned account of “Ol’ Man River” really hits the spot. Angela Renee Simpson shines as Queenie, the boat's spirited cook. Her acting and singing register deeply throughout, reaching a disarming peak in "Hey, Feller."
Lara Teeter is an endearing, slightly goofy Captain Andy and gets one of the show’s biggest laughs (the humor here is not exactly timeless, but the best lines still work). Cindy Gold is appropriately fearsome as the captain's wife.
The rest of the soloists do a vivid job. Same for the chorus. And the orchestra plays warmly for DeMain. (The cast is discreetly amplified, with a remarkably natural balance between stage and pit.)
It's quite an experience sailing with this crew and, after an eventful passage, ending up in a harbor that is not all that easy and safe, a place somewhere between reconciliation and doubt, idealism and practicality.
Zambello subtly underlines the ambiguity of the last scene, when a prodigal Ravenal returns. His daughter embraces him, but Magnolia looks away, as if seeking some sort of reassurance out on the river that keeps rolling along.
It is a wonderful moment that, like the whole production, reaffirms just how much heart and truth remain in this glorious landmark of the American musical stage.