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Dallas Opera's First Broadway Production, Show Boat, Is Unfailingly Engaging

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Friday, for the first time ever, Dallas Opera produced a Broadway musical.

Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat made Broadway history with its innovations and the quality of its score, setting the standard for the American musical for decades after its run of 527 performances in New York in 1927-'29.

Ninety years later, the six-performance run of Show Boat at Dallas Opera, while not exactly groundbreaking (plenty of opera companies, including Houston Grand Opera, have been producing musicals for years), poses plenty of questions about the nature and future of Dallas Opera, and opera in general.

In contrast to the seamless flow of a score by Puccini or Mozart, Show Boat is a stylistic hodge-podge, swinging from jazz, vaudeville and tin pan alley to something very close to opera — and, at one point, a bit of pseudo-sacred music, complete with organ and chimes — all in keeping with the philosophy of grand spectacle espoused by Florenz Ziegfield, who produced the show in 1927. The stylistic upshot, however, is a demand for frequent gear-shifts in the orchestra, as well as a broad range of singing styles — sometimes within one role.

Dallas Opera’s French-born music director, Emmanuel Villaume, who conducted Tosca and the world premiere of Adamo's Becoming Santa Claus last fall, had never conducted a Broadway show before, but declared that he was “having a blast” with the score in an interview last week. Musical impetus was, indeed, unfailing in Act I, on which Kern and Hammerstein bestowed a perpetual flow of ear-catching tunes, fine dramatic moments, grand ensemble numbers and songs that deserve their iconic place in American music, including “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Ol' Man River” and “Make Believe.” Although Villaume allowed some occasional glitches of ensemble between the chorus onstage and the orchestra in the pit, the Ziegfieldian spectacle never faltered — at least in Act I.

The creators of Show Boat aimed high in terms of creating an epic vision of American life over a period of four decades, and though the very serious commentary on race, addiction and a rapidly evolving culture continues after intermission, the series of sad departures and tearful reunions overlayed by Kern and Hammerstein on Edna Ferber’s original novel produce a tear-jerking but ultimately corny effect as the show draws toward its conclusion. The principal character Magnolia’s final song, “Dance Away the Night,” though beautifully sung in operetta style by soprano Andriana Chuchman, emerged as a particularly weak moment, which, while successfully narrating the concept that Magnolia has achieved international stardom, begs for a smoother and more meaningful staging than having Chuchman awkwardly lifted and lowered by tuxedoed male dancers. It just doesn’t work.

Except for some moments in which she had difficulty projecting spoken dialogue, Chuchman’s sung performance was uniformly fine; two other singers, soprano Alyson Cambridge as the tragically marginalized biracial Julie, and bass Morris Robinson as the laborer Joe, were remarkably outstanding. Cambridge delivered “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” with operatic radiance in Act I, and, in the midst of the accumulating corn of Act II, reveled, torch-song style, in the veiled tragedy of “Bill.” Bass Robinson (a three-time All-American offensive lineman for Citadel before beginning his operatic career) sang “Ol' Man River” as if he were born for it, with a gorgeous and magnificently controlled voice that, coupled with his powerful stage presence, epitomized the sense of oppression and defiance in that song.

Soprano Angela Renée Simpson, meanwhile, glittered dramatically as Queenie, the cook (and actual power) on the show boat, but was sometimes musically overpowered by the orchestra. Baritone Michael Todd Simpson managed to be appropriately rakish and romantic as Gaylord Ravenal.

Among the non-operatic roles, Lara Teeter was convincingly goofy and earnest as Cap’n Andy, while Mary-Pat Green was disappointingly understated as his domineering wife Parthy Ann. Kate Loprest and Jeffry Denman as the comical duo of Frank and Ellie Mae were appropriately vaudevillian. The chorus was generally adequate but occasionally somewhat less than resonant, and, as mentioned above, not always quite in sync with the orchestra.
Dallas Opera CEO Keith Cerny has stated the intention of presenting a Broadway musical every other year in the foreseeable future, as part of a multi-pronged plan for audience expansion. “I don’t know that the first-time opera goer who comes to see Show Boat will want to see Manon,” he says, “but I feel confident that he or she might become interested in Traviata or The Magic Flute after seeing Show Boat.”

Dallas Opera, meanwhile, projected that Show Boat would sell at least as well as the well-known standard operas. The company has scheduled a total of six performances for the musical, the same as for Puccini's Tosca last fall, and two more than Massenet's Manon earlier this year. Next year, by way of comparison, the company will present four performances each of Britten's Turn of the Screw and Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, five of Bellini's Norma, and six each of Heggie's Moby Dick and Puccini's Madama Butterfly.

The production — including colorful and elaborate costumes by Paul Tazewell and a soaringly spacious, multi-tiered set by Peter J. Davison — originated with Chicago Lyric Opera and has since been produced in San Francisco and Washington with some, but not all principal cast members appearing in all of those cities as well as Dallas. Francesca Zambello conceived and provided the stage direction for the Chicago production, and her philosophy and intentions have been carried over into the Dallas production by E. Loren Meeker.

Any production of Show Boat has to deal with the uncomfortable issue of “nigger” as the opening word in the original text — changed in this, as in many productions, to “colored folk.” A Broadway production can get by with tinkering with texts, but an opera company has a higher obligation to history and artistic authenticity, and, though the choice can be very tough in 2016, a hopefully less squeamish audience in the future will demand and deserve a more nearly complete faithfulness to the original text — just as in Mozart or Puccini or Wagner.

And, while this particular production was unfailingly engaging, the concept of an opera company producing a Broadway musical implies a level of perfection almost, but not quite, achieved in Friday night’s performance.

Additional performances of Show Boat are at 2 p.m. Sundays, April 17 and May 1;  and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 20, Saturday, April 23, and Friday, April 29. For more information and to purchase tickets, $19-$214, visit dallasopera.org.

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