The Review Is In

Houston Grand Opera's Show Boat is a rudderless ship: Uninspired, unintelligible & strangely viewless

Houston Grand Opera's Show Boat is a rudderless ship: Uninspired, unintelligible & strangely viewless

Nancy, Showboat, January 2013, New Year’s Eve at the Trocadero Club
New Year's Eve at the Trocadero Club Photo by © Felix Sanchez/Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera
Houston Grand Opera, Showboat, January Queenie (Marietta Simpson), Joe (Morris Robinson), Magnolia (Sasha Cooke) and Julie (Melody Moore) sing Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man”
Queenie (Marietta Simpson), Joe (Morris Robinson), Magnolia (Sasha Cooke) and Julie (Melody Moore) sing "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." Photo by © Feliz Sanchez/Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera
Houston Grand Opera, Showboat, January 2013, Joe (Morris Robinson) sings “Old Man River”
Joe (Morris Robinson) sings "Old Man River" Photo by © Feliz Sanchez/Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera
Houston Grand Opera, Showboat, January 2013, Magnolia (Sasha Cooke) and Gaylord (Joseph Kaiser)
Magnolia (Sasha Cooke) and Gaylord (Joseph Kaiser) Photo by © Eric Hester/Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera
Nancy, Showboat, January 2013, New Year’s Eve at the Trocadero Club
Houston Grand Opera, Showboat, January Queenie (Marietta Simpson), Joe (Morris Robinson), Magnolia (Sasha Cooke) and Julie (Melody Moore) sing Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man”
Houston Grand Opera, Showboat, January 2013, Joe (Morris Robinson) sings “Old Man River”
Houston Grand Opera, Showboat, January 2013, Magnolia (Sasha Cooke) and Gaylord (Joseph Kaiser)

It might sound strange, but I’ve always thought of Houston Grand Opera and Broadway in the same light. The first time I saw the company was on Broadway, in the celebrated 1975 production of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha.

At the time, the notoriously forgotten 1910 American grand opera made a huge impression on me, not only because of the talented African-American cast, but also because of its radical theme. Education is salvation, the opera asserted. By the finale, a struggling rural community chooses a young African-American woman as its leader.

“You know what is best to do,” the full cast implores her in glorious harmony, before a rousing finale.

 Is Show Boat a work that can be easily inhabited by an opera company? And has HGO brought something new and memorable with this production? 

With this Broadway association embedded in my mind, it didn’t seem surprising that Houston Grand Opera decided on Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern’s 1927 Show Boat. The company has staged the beloved musical before, and intends to program another musical, Sondheim’s sparkling A Little Night Music, next season as part of its “ongoing commitment to musical theater,” according to a press release issued last week.

This could be an intriguing turn in the company’s future, and I’m certainly looking forward to the Sondheim. My only dismay was somewhat personal, since two years ago I’d heard through the grapevine that HGO would finish off its multi-year Benjamin Britten series this season with his rarely performed three-act Gloriana.

Last year a press agent told me that Show Boat had taken its place, and I felt cheated. I’ll have to wait years and years for a staging of Gloriana, at HGO or elsewhere.

In a program essay, HGO artistic and music director Patrick Summers wrote, “But the greatest reason to do Show Boat is much simpler: it is great music.”

I sense a bit of defensiveness, as if he feels some need to justify the performances to an opera audience. Few would argue against Show Boat being jam-packed with memorable, inspired melodies and skillful lyrics. Hundreds of musicals could be considered “great music.”

Is Show Boat a work that can be easily inhabited by an opera company? And has HGO brought something new and memorable with this production?

Problems & Language

On opening night, I was surprised that so much of the singing was nearly unintelligible, especially the choral scenes.

“We will not use supertitles, for the work doesn’t need them and patrons would not encounter or expect them in the commercial theater,” Summers explained in program notes. Well, we don’t need them if the diction is precise, but it was not.

 All of the singers in this production certainly have the potential to belt, but instead there is a kind of overall politeness, a certain restraint, that makes this Show Boat uninspired. 

I couldn’t understand the lyrics for at least half of the performance, and I wondered if I was simply mentally filling the rest of them in anyway, since the show is so familiar. HGO has decided to “slightly enhance spoken dialogue and leave the singing unamplified,” but the amplification is spotty at best. This is the major technical flaw of the production.

Some years ago, a friend of mine ruminated, “opera singers don’t know how to let loose and just belt.” It was right around the time he was touring with the musical Starlight Express.

In our youth, we had been fellow music students, and he ended up a successful music director on Broadway. The concept of “belting” I took away from that conversation has something to do with volume (think of Ethel Merman singing There’s No Business Like Show Business) as well as the skillful use of vibrato. As a tone is sustained, it is clear and unwavering.

It should swell without vibrato. Then the vibrato should click in at the end of the phrase, which is usually held over the bar. The belting singer prevails over the orchestra, over the chorus, and over the audience. He or she makes the song, or the musical, into a real “show.”  

All of the singers in this production certainly have the potential to belt, but instead there is a kind of overall politeness, a certain restraint, that makes this Show Boat uninspired. Joseph Kaiser as Gaylord Ravenal had serious pitch problems on opening night. His part in a classic number like “Make Believe” was thin and wobbly, and Sasha Cooke (making her HGO debut as Magnolia Hawkes) was pitch-perfect throughout, but all too vocally dainty in the role.

 HGO has realized the musical rather than interpreting it. 

Perhaps the greatest singer is Marietta Simpson as Queenie, but even she took some time warming up. I sense there were acoustic problems for all of the singers, related to both the set design and the need to vacillate between amplified spoken dialogue and unamplified singing.

One expects a great Joe in Show Boat, and Morris Robinson (also making his HGO debut) is confident but indifferent. Often his voice moves mostly into the nasal cavity, making for a strangely dry sound that lacks warmth. He’s got the volume down, though the role is more complicated than just volume. Robinson has another chance to impress as the Commendatore in HGO’s Don Giovanni, which opens next week.

Paul Tazewell’s costumes are gorgeous. Peter J. Davison’s set designs are serviceable but largely unremarkable. Michele Lynch’s choreography is amateurish, and sound designer Mark Grey has some unfinished work. Director Francesca Zambello lacks any sort of stance here, and it’s difficult to determine what she thinks Show Boat says, or should say, to audiences in 2013.

HGO has realized the musical rather than interpreting it.

If you haven’t seen Show Boat, be forewarned that the characterization of African-Americans throughout is unfortunate, to say the least. The dialogue includes use of the N-word, not to mention hokey and often ridiculous vernacular speech. It reminded me of a television program a few years ago, in which comedian Dave Chappelle and poet Maya Angelou spent an afternoon in thoughtful dialogue at Angelou’s home. Eventually their conversation came to The N-word, on which they differed.

I remember Angelou reminding Chappelle that one might put poison into a different container, but it remains, nevertheless, poison.