Show Boat almost begs for an operatically scaled production, and director Francesca Zambello obliges.
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“It’s high time to lay to rest the shopworn canard” that works of musical theater are too lowbrow for opera performers, said John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune. No other musical is better suited to refute this myth than Show Boat: The 1927 show set the benchmark for all musical theater to come, as its memorable Jerome Kern–Oscar Hammerstein songs spring directly from a narrative about “broken hearts and conflicted ambitions” among passengers on a Mississippi riverboat. Show Boat almost begs for an operatically scaled production, and Francesca Zambello obliges with a handsome staging that “integrates trained operatic voices, musical comedy singers, and a pride of Chicago actors and dancers.”
Some performers adapt better than others to the show’s demands, said Scott Morgan in the Chicago Daily Herald. A few of these singers make the dialogue sound “halting and wooden”: Baritone Nathan Gunn, for one, possesses the “leading-man looks and honeyed voice” needed to play suave gambler Gaylord Ravenal, but Gunn musters only lackluster romantic chemistry with fellow lead Ashley Brown. Soprano Alyson Cambridge, by contrast, is an “alluring” Julie LaVerne, star of the boat’s theater troupe, while bass Morris Robinson delivers an “Ol’ Man River” that’s “unquestionably” a highlight of the evening. In fact, the music proves to be Show Boat’s true star. As the orchestra “floats along heavenly from one musical high point to another,” it’s enough to silence even the most die-hard opera purists.