COMPOSERS: Jerome Kern
ALBUM TITLE: Show Boat
WORKS: Show Boat
PERFORMER: Heidi Stober, Michael Todd Simpson, Bill Irwin, Patricia Racette, Morris Robinson, Angela Renée Simpson, Harriet Harris; San Francisco Opera/John DeMain; dir. Francesca Zambello (San Francisco, 2013)
CATALOGUE NO: DVD: 2059688; Blu-ray: 2059684
No question as to whether this milestone Kern-Hammerstein musical belongs in an opera house – Show Boat’s quality and importance to the development of musical theatre gives a clear answer. But does Francesca Zambello’s zippy production, as performed by San Francisco Opera, actually benefit from video scrutiny? On Blu-ray especially, Peter Davison’s candyfloss-coloured sets dazzle the eye; so do most of Paul Tazewell’s costumes, even if the chorus array themselves in ‘Ol’ Man River’ as if at a fashion magazine shoot. As for the cast, who wouldn’t want to relish at close quarters the whimsical agility of Bill Irwin’s Cap’n Andy, the comic abrasions of Harriet Harris as his battle-axe wife Parthy, or the warmth of Angela Renée Simpson’s Queenie, this production’s heart and soul?
Unfortunately, the cameras also underline deficiencies among the motley performers drawn from opera, musical theatre and television. Patricia Racette’s over-egged delivery of ‘Bill’ becomes a three-hankie trip into the grotesque. Morris Robinson hectors us in ‘Ol’ Man River’, the words unclear (though clearer than the chorus’s mulch, a drawback throughout). Michael Todd Simpson’s Ravenal is vocally plausible, but his romantic aura is faint. Heidi Stober, the vibrant if rather operatic Magnolia, wins good marks for trying.
The version concocted by Francesca Zambello and the sympathetic conductor John DeMain mostly adopts the original orchestrations, includes with benefit material sometimes cut, and trims the dialogue to increase pace – a mixed blessing once Hammerstein’s libretto, initially so strong, crumbles into bits. Yet throughout, Kern’s mongrel score stays the joy it always is. Geoff Brown