Lyric Treats Show Boat like an Opera, Wins

There’s this awkward conversational pas-de-deux that happens between me and musical theater people. We’re all musicians but have very little shared repertoire to talk about. It’s an age-old “high art” versus “low art” rift that forces every work to one side or the other, allowing audiences to self-segregate themselves by the  highness of their brow.

The clear solution is crossover. Typically, it’s called “classical crossover”:  classical, “high brow” musicians playing simple(r) “low brow” music.

But all high brow music has low beginnings. Symphonies were based on popular dance forms, and the original operas were based on what the Greeks must have called “Musical Theater.”

Show Boat deserves none of the pigeon-holing it gets and is one of the few works that “crosses over”—before crossing over was even cool.

[All quotation marks are meant to be read as “air-quotes.”]

It’s both a play with singing and an operetta with speaking—and dancing too. As such, it’s hard to judge.

[To handle the inaudibility of speech from the Lyric’s stage, the performance actually uses “audio reinforcement” from 16 microphones—”amplification.” Still, there were complaints from the elderly at intermission about not being able to hear the dialogue, which was not projected as supertitles.]

By the standards of the The Lyric’s usual audience, quick to judge the singers’ voices, there is no disappointment in the likes of Nathan Gunn or Alyson Cambridge, each having several songs (arias?) that require a well-trained, operatic voice.

For the State street crowd, there’s plenty of upbeat numbers by top-notch musical theater folks—dancing, cane-twirling and even confetti…”!”

And then there’s deft social commentary on racism and a love story that twists and arcs over several decades.

It was enough to warm the cold and cynical cockles of my heart on a cold and wintry evening in Chicago, opening my mind to a whole new world of American “middle-brow” entertainment.

This production is by the book, including all the numbers Kern and Hammerstein penned, not stripping away the “excess” to make it “easier” for the low-brow crowd. [The high-brow audience at the Lyric can handle 3.25 hours on one cheek]

While the musical’s vocal requirements are less stringent (like, 3% less), its dramatic demands are more, requiring performers to speak as well as sing—and sometimes dance.

Often, opera’s vocal requirements overshadow other concerns, like acting, but in Show Boat, each performer must look and act the part. This cast does it all and then some: each more perfect for their role than the last.

To my classical ears, Mr. Gunn as Gaylord Ravenal shined brightest, effortlessly scaling back the inherent power in his voice and firmly inhabiting his unctuous bad-boy-gone-good character. Opposite him, Ashley Brown as Magnolia Hawks used her Broadway tricks to good effect, singing in a style not entirely operatic but perfectly suited to the role—also, easier to understand. She was one of the many performers making a stellar Lyric debut.

Alyson Cambridge played mixed-race Julie LaVerne. I liked her in Contes d’Hoffmann last year and liked her just as much in Show Boat. An operatic voice, she plays the good-girl-diva-gone-alcoholic with startling believability.

And then there’s Old Man River. Morris Robinson (Joe) brings the show to a stirring halt with the spiritual in the first act; the song then comes back throughout the second, helping orient the drama like a foghorn in the dramatic fog. It might be the show’s one big hit, but it’s a pretty big hit, and Mr. Robinson is the one to hear sing it. [It’s his Lyric debut as well, but most of his feet are in planted in the opera world; I’d have loved to see him as Sarastro in this year’s Magic Flute. Schade.]

With its appeal as wide as the Old Man River himself, Show Boat is a sure hit. It makes the trek from the theater district across the Loop totally worth it.

MUST SEE for all red-blooded Americans.

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