By: Caitlin E. Brown
Is it possible to enjoy pieces that portray social issues of their time and not see them as terribly dated? I’m not sure society will ever be able to take such an objective view of racial tensions during the Reconstruction era, but I do think that the only way to further the dialogue about our present day problems is to reflect on our past. My experience at Washington National Opera‘s production of Show Boat on May 7th provided one such opportunity. It was exciting, fast-paced, and bubbling over with old Americana references.
Oscar Hammerstein adapted a well-loved classic novel by Edna Ferber in 1927 about racial tensions and relationships in the Reconstruction South. What immediately shocked and surprised audiences in 1927 wasn’t composer Jerome Kern’s use of recent American musical idioms (i.e. ragtime and jazz) or the seeming sophistication of a musical theater piece; it was the racially integrated cast that garnered the most attention. Show Boat was the first staged work in the United States to feature white and African-American performers together on the same stage.
Though recent critics have dismissed the musical as quaint and misrepresentative in its illustrations of the African-American characters, the work has endured and is still widely performed. Despite several revisions to make the plot more palatable and politically correct for modern audiences, Show Boat still touches on something innately American for each character: the struggle for exceptionalism.
Each character battles not only with his or her internal sense of identity, but also with the desire to succeed and make the most of circumstances, a theme that runs rampant across American history, literature, and music. Hammerstein features the still complicated issues of feminism, racism, marriage, and patriotism prominently, presenting a portrait of American life that is rife with tribulations, something with which modern audiences can certainly connect.
Morris Robinson gave an outstanding performance as Joe and brought the audience close to tears with his rendition of “Ol’ Man River,” one of the favorite standards from the show. His precise attention to phrasing and his raw emotion elicited a number of “bravos” during the first act.
If you are unfamiliar with the number, here is the original motion picture version from 1936 with Paul Robeson.
Another notable performance came from Alyson Cambridge in the role of Julie, a role she is already familiar with playing at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. Cambridge brought the right amount of presence to her character, a “fallen” woman who, like her friends, seems to have lost herself on the way to success. Cambridge injected just enough jazz into her rendition of “Bill” to convince the audience that her abilities lay far beyond that of a seasoned opera singer.
Show Boat may still seem dated to skeptics, but the Washington National Opera shifts the focus from any possible political commentary to the on-stage synergy between all of the performers. The cohesiveness of costuming, blocking, and choreography do much to convey a sense of oneness between the characters regardless of race, age, gender, or class. If there is a political level to the production, it may simply be that art is best when it transcends such social constructs.
For audience members used to the neatly tied up happy endings of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, beware that expectation for Show Boat. Hammerstein’s libretto has a decidedly adult tone, leaving audiences with a sense of bittersweet resolution in the final moments of the operetta. Not every character gets his heart’s desire and some simply fade away into the background.
If I could be a member of this production, I would choose to play in the orchestra. Kern seamlessly weaves together a wide swath of American musical idioms including ragtime, jazz, classic dance styles, cake walk, and some European opera elements. The WNO Orchestra gave a fine performance under conductor John DeMain. His attention to tempo and tendency to push them quicker than expected in places (particularly during the dance sequences and large chorus numbers) had a profound impact on such a long work.
The program notes mentioned that Show Boat is the first production in a commitment to stage more works by American composers at the WNO. In fact, WNO’s 2013-2014 season includes Tristan and Isolde starring Deborah Voigt, a new production of The Force of Destiny directed by Francesca Zambello, the East Coast première of Moby-Dick, a revival of The Elixir of Love, and a new production of The Magic Flute. WNO will also present the world première of The Lion, The Unicorn, and Me, a holiday-themed family opera commissioned by WNO and written by acclaimed American composer Jeanine Tesori. A second season of the American Opera Initiative will continue WNO’s efforts to commission new American works. After my experience with Show Boat, my interest has definitely been piqued!
Remaining performances of Show Boat with Washington National Opera:
Friday, May 10 at 7:30 p.m. • Saturday, May 11 at 7 p.m. Sunday, May 12 at 2 p.m. • Thursday, May 16 at 7:30 p.m. • Friday, May 17 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, May 18 at 7 p.m. • Sunday, May 19 at 2:00 p.m. • Tuesday, May 21 at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 24 at 7:30 p.m. • Saturday, May 25 at 7 p.m. • Sunday, May 26 at 2:00 p.m.
Tickets start at $25 and are available at the Kennedy Center Box Office, by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324, or online at www.kennedy-center.org. Subscription packages for the 2013-2014 season are also available and can be purchased at (202) 416-8500 or at www.kennedy-center.org.
Caitlin E. Brown is a Musicology PhD student and blogger in the Washington, D.C. area. She strongly supports collaboration between performance and scholarship, and the advocacy of new classical music. Her other interests include running, wine, and Indiana basketball.