The Washington National Opera’s new production of Show Boat, the 1927 musical, opened only a few weeks after the release of “Accidental Racist,” the misbegotten country-rap duet in which Brad Paisley and LL Cool J team up to set back American racial politics by 90 years. As we now know, eradicating racism comes down to simply accepting certain wardrobe choices. “If you don’t judge my gold chains/I’ll forget the iron chains,” LL generously offers, popping in to lend some street cred to the Confederate flag-donning Paisley before making his exit.
In Show Boat, our LL Cool J is Joe, a “shiftless roustabout” who is always drinking and avoiding work, turning up periodically to remind us how tough it is for the unidentified black laborers on the Mississippi as we follow the more interesting travails of the white characters. One of them, Magnolia, appropriates Joe’s spirituals and becomes a big Broadway star. A couple of stage hours later, Ol’ Man River is still rolling, and Joe is still drunk and unemployed.
The WNO promises its big production lets audiences “hear and see this timeless work as it was originally performed.” But director Francesca Zambello wisely took some modern-day liberties, excising, for example, Magnolia’s minstrel performance of “Gallivanting Around,” and casting actual black people to play black roles, however stereotypical: In the original 1927 production, Joe’s wife Queenie, the rotund “mammy” character, was played by white actress Tess Gardella (best known for her role as Aunt Jemima) in blackface.
Though opera fans may still scratch their heads over why the WNO has chosen to produce a musical at all. Zambello’s claim that Show Boat is, in fact, “the first true American opera” is a bit of a stretch; purists would argue an opera doesn’t do as much talking as Show Boat does, for one. But WNO needn’t justify its choice. Plenty of local theater companies could produce Show Boat, but few could afford to put on something as showy and well-executed as this.
It’s Zambello’s ambition that makes Show Boat work. The unapologetically over-the-top musical, which starts in 1887, takes a spiffed-up jaunt through a comparatively grim 40-year period in American history; one that spans a string of financial panics, a world war, and the high point of the Ku Klux Klan. Its characters battle discrimination and hastily resolved personal setbacks—like addiction, and, oh, murder. But Show Boat’s appeal doesn’t spring just from the timelessness of a story about vaudeville and steam-powered transport. It’s the spectacular sets (the Cotton Blossom show boat, Chicago’s Trocadero theater), costumes (bargemen, flappers), and dancing (here acrobatically choreographed by Michele Lynch).
WNO’s show isn’t without its flaws: It starts with a wobbly overture by the orchestra and struggles under the weight of conductor John DeMain’s glacial tempos. The central couple, Magnolia and Gaylord—the capable Andriana Chuchman and Michael Todd Simpson—is frequently upstaged by secondary characters. Next to the smoldering alcoholic singer and rival Julie LaVerne (Alyson Cambridge), Chuchman looks meek. Angela Renée Simpson, as Queenie, boasts an impressive vocal range, while the show’s most entertaining performance comes from Lara Teeter as Captain Andy in a wild, one-man pantomime of the first act’s play-within-a-play. Morris Robinson ably lends his unique bassoon-like bass to the role of Joe, but with less anger than weary bitterness.
By integrating its cast, then ignoring the black characters—acknowledging the prejudice faced by a mixed-race couple before kicking them out of the story—Show Boat was more a product of its time than ahead of it. But Zambello’s production doesn’t try to correct Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s sense of history (or their racial slurs). It aims to dazzle, and in that it succeeds.
The musical continues through May 26 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $30-$270. Free “Opera in the Outfield” simulcast at Nationals Park on May 18 at 7 p.m. (800) 444-1324.
Photo by Scott Suchman