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Theater Review (Washington, DC): Show Boat by Franchesca Zambello at The Kennedy Center Opera House

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Angela Renée Simpson as Queenie (center, in pink dress) and the company of Show Boat. Photo by Scott Suchman.

It is always an odd experience seeing an old time Broadway show revived for today’s cynical modern times. The 1927 production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat is widely credited as being one of the first Broadway “super musicals.” The show spawned numerous, well known classics like “Ol’ Man River,” “You Are Love,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Bill,” and others. Washington National Opera under Artistic Director Francesca Zambello spared no expense in bringing this massive production to The Kennedy Center Opera house.

Show Boat is one of the most difficult shows to revive because of its variety of sets including the big, imposing Mississippi River Boat façade, the beautiful Trocadero Club set with it’s big neon sign and a huge cast of almost 100 people. The show mixes classic American Opera styles with old school ragtime and vaudeville numbers.

Show Boat Show Review

Andriana Chuchman as Magnolia (center, in light blue dress) and the company of Show Boat. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Beyond the set trappings, at almost three hours (with a 20 minute intermission) and spanning over 40 years it has a very ambitious story to tell. While one may not like certain elements of the show, you have to admire the passion and skill it takes to pull something like this off. Even with all of its bigness, this production still manages to feel small and intimate.

At its core this is a love story, set against the trappings of life on Captain Andy (Lara Teeter) Hawk’s the Cotton Blossom a gigantic, gleaming white gambling, show boat. Every night the crew puts on various musical and theatrical acts. Helping run things are African American couple Queenie (Angela Renée Simpson) and her husband Joe (Morris Robinson), his ornery wife Patty (Cindy Gold) and their sheltered daughter Magnolia (Andriana Chuchman).

l-r) Andriana Chuchman as Magnolia and Michael Todd Simpson as Gaylord Ravenal. Photo by Scott Suchman

Trouble begins with the arrival of the handsome rogue gambler with a name you have to love, Gaylord Ravenal (Michal Todd Simpson). Magnolia falls in love instantly. Structurally the story does a great job of using this romance as a backdrop to being a traditional tale about the rise and fall of show business in that era.

While the show’s tone is mostly serious there are a couple of cute moments to lighten the mood, including a hysterically funny overly exaggerated reproduction of a theater show. It is so mocking and over the top you can’t help but smile.

Morris Robinson as Joe (center, in red shirt) and the company of Show Boat. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Paul Tazewell costumes look stunning and authentic to the time. It takes a lot of work to outfit that many folks for so many different moments. This show has to be one of the most complex to design for as there are many different styles to outfit for – nightclubs, theater, vaudeville, and a huge wedding. The costume work does a nice job of blending well with Set Designer Peter J. Davison fabulous recreation of Show Boat’s classic sets.

Andriana Chuchman as Magnolia (center, in teal dress) and the company of Show Boat. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Here’s the issue with the show, while I can appreciate the vastness and scope of the undertaking, there were times when the score felt a bit dated and not varied enough. The powerful voices somehow drowned out Conductor John DeMain’s massive 50-piece Orchestra. The other slightly annoying thing about this particular production was the use of a sometimes-distracting gigantic led display that showed subtitles during some of the more operatic moments. It was oddly placed and became distracting.

On May 18th, as part of M&M’s Opera in the Outfield Program, The Kennedy Center will give fans the opportunity to watch a free live broadcast of the 7pm show at Nationals Park on their beautiful big High-Definition televisions.

Kate Loprest as Ellie May Chipley (center) and the company of Show Boat. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Another neat thing being done is there will be several events during select performances. These events will include pre-show musical history lessons where audience have a chance to gain more insight into Show Boat’s classic score and some performances will have post performance Q & A’s.

While I was not a fan of the music and think, at almost three hours, it is too long; I admire the heck out of incredible stagecraft on display. This may not be the show you take non-Broadway lovers to. A true lover of theater should experience this classic in the full glory on display at The Kennedy Center. Show Boat runs until May 26th.

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About Michelle Alexandria