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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Just one drop: Lyric Opera's Show Boat

Posted By on 03.13.12 at 06:30 PM

The 1936 version is said to be better.
  • The 1936 version is said to be better.

I was ten and on a family vacation at Estes Park in Colorado when my dad dragged us to a screening of Show Boat in the grand lodge. I had grumbled—I was a bookworm and wanted to stay in the room reading—but as it happened, I loved it. Of course, I had no clue as to miscegenation, which is central to the plot. When the tragic heroine, Julie, is forced to leave the show boat after her mixed marriage is exposed, I imagine I would have thought something along the lines of "Why is the pretty lady leaving?"

I had a soundtrack of the show in high school, and know it well. But even a bigger buff than I would find the Lyric's current production eye-opening. Most everyone knows the monster tunes—"Old Man River," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," etc, etc. But "Queenie's Ballyhoo"? "When the Sports of Gay Chicago"?

Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's groundbreaking musical debuted in 1927 with a running time of four hours and ten minutes. Cuts were made, and over the years the show has appeared in multiple versions, among them a 1936 movie directed by James Whale and famously featuring Paul Robeson as Joe and the 1951 Technicolor movie I saw as a kid. Lyric's version looks to the original, casting not just opera singers but actors, dancers, and musical theater performers, as the initial production did. Director Francesca Zambello has made the most of the large mixed cast, alternating white and African-American choruses and groups of dancers to stunning effect. Their separation itself is telling, as are scenes like the Cotton Blossom performance where the blacks are sequestered in the balcony.

Race comes out in subtler ways in this staging. When Julie sings "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," Queenie, Joe's wife, expresses surprise that someone not colored would know it, and adds a verse of her own that refers to the gin on her man's breath. In a chilling addition, "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun," Queenie sings of the foreboding she's woken up with, and is joined by the black chorus, then Julie, who's just learned of her exposure. With the sheriff on the way, her husband, Steve, pulls out a knife, cuts Julie's finger, and sucks blood from it, forcing even Parthy, Captain Andy's intolerant battle horse of a wife, to concede that Steve has Negro blood in him. The couple leaves the company.

The second act is a study in disparity: Magnolia, the daughter of Captain Andy and Parthy, assumes Julie's old role and eventually goes on to stardom after being deserted by her gambler husband; Julie, having lost Steve to another man—"Johnnie Walker," the onstage piano player cracks—leaves her nightclub singing job to "go on a tear," and is once again replaced by Magnolia. Years later, when the family is briefly united, Joe comes on for the finale, the lyrics of "Old Man River" altered to make reference to the coming world war and the imminence of death: "The clothes I'm wearin' / are clothes I'll die in! / But old man river / he just keeps rolling along."

Remaining performances of Show Boat are Wed 3/14 and Sat 3/17, both at 7:30 PM.

More Disparity Week on the Bleader.

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