SF Opera is producing Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's Show Boat this season. Based on Edna Ferber's hit 1926 novel, Kern proposed adapting the work to Hammerstein as a Ziegfield production, shrewdly signing on Ferber as a silent partner. It is the first great, sweeping American musical, and paved the way for future epics. Porgy and Bess, Carousel, Oaklahoma, South Pacific, West Side Story - all owe a debt to Show Boat. Ferber was intrigued by the romantic notion of the paddle wheel showboats that steamed up and down the Mississippi from the 1870's to the 1930's, bringing drama and music and vaudeville to isolated river towns. Ferber's novel has romance, nostalgia, and a very modern and realistic look at the tragic and complex character of post Civil War race relations, which carried over into the musical. Designed from the beginning as musical, drama, and vaudeville, the current production uses elements of the original 1927 production, and the 1947 revival. Opera singers are used for the sung parts, and actors, including Bill Irwin, for spoken roles. With the exception of the unfortunate decision to mic the spoken roles, it is a magnificent production. Angela Renee Simpson as Queenie, Patricia Racette as Julie, Heidi Stober as Magnolia, and Michael Todd Simpson as Gaylord Ravenal, are all beautifully matched. But as anticipated, it is Morris Robinson as a majestic Joe that brings the house down. The director Francesca Zambello writes in the program notes something that I have long said: our musicals (light opera, as they sometimes were called) need to be incorporated into our opera house repertoires.
As a child, I was privileged to see a lot of the legendary Broadway performers in their signature roles: John Raitt in Carousel, Yul Brynner in The King and I, Robert Preston in The Music Man, Richard Kiley in Man of La Mancha, and traveling productions of Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, My Fair Lady, and South Pacific, to name a few. As most of the standards jazz musicians improvise over comes from this body of work, it was a wonderful foundation for me.