Jerome Kern’s Show Boat rocked Broadway in 1927. Here was a show that wasn’t just a chorus line of pretty women and a trivial romance but a show based on Edna Ferber’s serious novel that dealt with racism, a mixed white/black marriage, and single parenthood after spousal desertion. Broadway was never the same again. Kern had opened the door to Rodgers and Hammerstein and many others. The musical had grown up overnight. Show Boat has gone through many changes over the years. There have been several movie versions and some misguided efforts to update it. The San Francisco Opera has gone back to the original with a production that sometimes oozes period charm but often seems dated.
The dated part comes from having some of the secondary actors play their parts way too broadly, enough to become caricatures and a distraction. Bill Irwin’s Cap’n Andy Hawks is the worst offender, with Kirsten Wyatt’s Ellie May a close second. On the plus side, Heidi Stober and Michael Ford Simpson make an attractive and vocally capable pair of lovers as Magnolia and Gaylord and Patricia Racette is a winning, world weary Julie. Stealing the show, however, is Morris Robinson as Joe. His “Old Man River” is the high point of this production. After a shaky beginning, the SFO orchestra plays well and the chorus and dancers are superb, as are the sets and costumes. A word of warning, the “n” word is used but only coming from an evil character. In Kern’s original it was the opening word but here the African American chorus sing “Colored Folk” instead. DTS Sound and HD picture are state of the art.