Everyone recognizes Kern/Hammerstein’s Showboat, sometimes solely by way of Ol’ Man River, arguably the most spine-tingling and moving song in American musical theatre. Now along comes SF Opera with a grand-scale production, patriotically decked out in Yankee Doodle glory.
Some may know that Showboat depicts riverboat life between the 1880s and the 1920s. Its Broadway opening was in 1927, and happily, audiences will enjoy the original orchestrations. The score includes Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, Make Believe, Why Do I Love You? and Bill.
The musical touches on themes of racism, romance and conflicted relationships. The opera world’s archetypal melodramatic style suits the show perfectly. Cast members were drawn from both opera and musical theater, as Showboat does not fit neatly into one category or the other.
The Opera was fortunate to cast iconic clown and physical actor Bill Irwin as Cap’n Andy. Broadway’s Heidi Sober plays Magnolia. In other key roles, Michael Todd Simpson appears as Gaylord Ravenal, fittingly-named Patricia Racette plays Julie LaVerne, and Morris Robinson is Joe.
Few know that Edna Ferber hit upon the concept for the novel that inspired the show quite randomly. In 1924, following a failed Ferber play, a colleague offhandedly remarked that the company could always join a showboat. Ferber initially had no idea what that was, but she later declared that show life on the river was “one of the most melodramatic and gorgeous bits of Americana that had ever come my way.”
Ferber began feverishly writing and researching in Manhattan and aboard a riverboat in Maryland. The novel “explores a nation undergoing pivotal change” (Random House).
With music by Jerome Kern, and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, the show is a co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera and Houston Grand Opera, and runs two hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission. It is sung in English with English supertitles.
Showboat plays at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. Tickets range from $140-$379, and are available at the Opera website or by calling (415) 864-3330.