A Sparkling “Show Boat” Docks at the Lyric Opera

The Mississippi riverboat named the Cotton Blossom has docked on the stage of the Civic Opera House.

“Show Boat,” the wonderful, ground-breaking 1927 American musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, deserves a first-class presentation, and Lyric has given it just that with this lavish production, conducted by John DeMain.

All the characters, under the direction of Francesco Zambello, sparkle—golden-voiced soprano Ashley Brown is starry-eyed Magnolia, who was raised on the Cotton Blossom, Lyric’s popular baritone Nathan Gunn is the suave riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal. Their duet “Make Believe” is quintessentially romantic.

Soprano Alyson Cambridge plays the beautiful half-caste Julie with heartbreaking intensity. Irrepressible soprano Angela Renee Simpson is Queenie, whose number “Hey, Feller” simply stops the show. Bass Morris Robinson plays her husband, Joe, who delivers the musical’s best song, “Ol’ Man River,” with power and pathos.

Chicago favorite Ross Lehman is Magnolia’s energetic father, Captain Andy, and Cindy Gold plays her persnickety mother, Parthy. As the comic show-biz couple Ellie May and Frank, Ericka Mac and Bernie Yvon generate laughs and are sensational dancers. Mac’s “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” is fresh and funny.

Don’t be fooled. There is no cotton candy on the Cotton Blossom. Racial tension, jealousy and desperation are part of the ebb and flow of the river on which it rides. There are two choruses, one Caucasian and one African-American, each with their own songs of joy and sorrow.

Still, there are glorious production numbers with dancers in vivid red, white and blue costumes, contrasting with the drab apparel of the dock workers, all by designer Paul Tazewell.

The scene opening the second act celebrates the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It begins as a sepia tableau with characters in Belle Epoque attire, complete with a Ferris Wheel and an image from the White City, all seen through a scrim. At the opening performance, set designer Peter J. Davison won immediate applause as the curtains parted.

There is even a song about our Windy City, a lovely surprise for those who have only seen films of “Show Boat,” which omit that number.

The story has an operatic sweep, moving from the 1880s to 1927 and the ambiguous ending is totally unlike the 1951 film.

See this show if you can. Yes, the singers are amplified, and yes, it runs three hours and 15 minutes. But perhaps because the story is so beloved, it does not seem dated, rooted as it is in the history of the post-Emancipation South. This is a memorable production.

“Show Boat” run at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr., Chicago through March 17. Call 312-332-2244 or visit lyricopera.org.


Photo by Robert Kusel