High-kicking legs fly up in perfect unison while canes sail through the air as choreographer Michele Lynch holds court with the dancers in the Houston Grand Opera production of Jerome Kern's Show Boat, with book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.
There's enough energy in the room to power the fabled Cotton Blossom river boat down the mighty Mississippi, as Lynch prepares her charges to tackle the many dance numbers that enliven this historical musical. Within seconds, and with no sets or costumes, I know this is going to be one rockin' show running at HGO through Feb. 9.
The story goes that, as the Broadway curtain came down on Show Boat that fateful day in 1927, the audience remained silent. At first, the muted response seemed to indicate a flop. Turns out, the audience was in a state of shock and awe.
The show ran for 572 performances, has been revived numerous times and has been turned into two movies (1936 and 1951). HGO first tackled Show Boat back in 1982 and again in 1989. This HGO production, directed by Francesca Zambello, is a joint production with Chicago Lyric Opera and Washington National Opera.
Based on a epic novel by Edna Ferber, Show Boat spans a world in change from 1887 to 1927.
Showboat holds a special spot in the history of musical theater in that it was the one of first musicals with a believable story where the songs existed to move the tale forward. Based on a epic novel by Edna Ferber, Show Boat spans a world in change from 1887 to 1927, and dealt with such heated topics as racism, miscegenation and alcoholism, with a compelling story and memorable characters.
Then there are the many standards, like "Make Believe," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and the supremely hummable anthem "Ol' Man River."
"Don't stop dancing during the grand jetes," Lynch reminds the dancers as they glide through the air. The choreographer has worked with Jerry Mitchell in Hairspray, along with numerous other Broadway credits. Watching her work, I'm reminded of what's unique about dancing in a musical.
I can see Lynch envisioning the scenery, the singers, the entire world of Show Boat, which is what her dances will be living within. The dances, like the songs, exist to provide another layer of life in a vivid theatrical package. Lynch as done one fabulous job of integrating the movement sections seamlessly into the drama.
Watching her work, I'm reminded of what's unique about dancing in a musical.
With a story focused on entertainers, dance is part of the fabric of life on the Cotton Blossom. Still, the choreography packs a strong punch. Just about everything about this production is super sized. "It's a big show,"says Charles Swan, a swing (the person who learns every part in the show) and head of the musical theater department at HSPVA. "Wait to you see the actual boat."
"I'm more of a new musical person," says Lynch. "There's no expectations. But something about Show Boat does feel new. There are two new songs in this special version too."
Lynch is not so interested in creating a museum piece. In fact, there is no definitive version of Show Boat. Some versions are four hours long. Relax — HGO's version is under three hours.
Although Show Boat is steeped in the lore of musical theater history, Lynch approaches her work as a creative artist, putting her own stamp on the piece. She was also part of the original creative team for the Chicago Lyric Opera production.
"The HGO version has new elements, though," says Lynch, who prefers to respond to the talents in front of her. "It's also such a joy to work with dancers who do not need to also sing."
"How do you even begin working on a piece that was created so long ago?" I asked Lynch. "I started by researching the styles of the day. Thank God for YouTube. When footage wasn't available I used stills for inspiration," says Lynch, while demonstrating a particularly interesting shape.
"We are mostly talking about social dances that people did during the time period of the show that spans about 50 years. I did watch the two Show Boat movies, but only once. I wanted to be informed by them but not influenced."
Popular dances of the day, like the Charleston and the Cake Walk, factor into Lynch's eye-popping choreography. ...
Popular dances of the day, like the Charleston and the Cake Walk, factor into Lynch's eye-popping choreography. "Luckily, we studied social dances at Juilliard," says dance captain Tobin Del Cuore, who was in Houston earlier this fall assisting Aszure Barton on Angular Momentum at Houston Ballet.
Besides Swan, other local dancers include Christopher Cardenas of the Houston Met Dance Company, Hope Stone dancers Nick Nesmith and Courtney D. Jones, a musical theater veteran. This is Jones' first production with HGO, though she did Show Boat once before with Zambello in New York.
"Michele has a great eye for detail, but also encourages the dance ensemble to bring their own personalities to the scenes involving dance, which makes the scenes so exciting to watch," says Jones, another swing. "This production is completely new and exciting for me. It's beyond cool getting to listen to these amazingly talented singers."
There's a big dance star in this boat
Judging from the total quiet in the room when Lara Teeter entered the rehearsal, I'd say HGO knows how to keep the star power up. It can't be easy to step into Tommy Tune's shoes (he's on vocal rest) as Cap'n Andy Hawks. These dancers were obviously well aware of Teeter's reputation.
"Lara is a legend," Swan whispered while Lynch showed him a couple of complicated clogging steps. Seconds later, Teeter had the buck n' wing step down.
Teeter brings vast experience as a performer, director and choreographer for major regional theater and opera houses nationwide. The Tony-nominated dancer has six Broadway shows to his credit, including the revival of the Rodgers and Hart classic On Your Toes, which won an Outer Critics Circle Award.
Judging from the total quiet in the room when Lara Teeter entered the rehearsal, I'd say HGO knows how to keep the star power up.
Lynch gets inspired by the talent in the room, so the choice to have Teeter join the cast was a happy one. "Teeter and I collaborated on the Parson's Bride segment," Lynch says. "He brought a lot of his personality and originality into that part and truly made it his own. Teeter is just a special soul, and being in the room and collaborating with him is a gift."
Listening to Teeter talk about Show Boat made me wish I was a student in one of his classes at Webster University Conservatory for Theatre Arts in St. Louis, where he's an associate professor and head of the musical theater program.
"It was the first musical with a 20-minute dramatic scene with no songs," says Teeter, outlining the many firsts that occurred in this musical. He not only fills me in on all the innovations of Show Boat as a seminal piece in American musical theater history, but on the confluence of factors at work in the New York theater during the late 1920s that gave rise to the conditions that made Show Boat possible.
"New York was one of the few places in America where African Americans could make a living on the stage."
Watching and talking to Lynch and Teeter brought a new perspective on a classic musical. What a reminder of what makes theater a living, breathing, ever-evolving thing. So know when the curtain goes up on these performances, Show Boat will be coming together in that moment for us to experience again.