S.F. Opera's big, perplexing 'Show Boat'

San Francisco Opera’s opening of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Show Boat” on Sunday is what Ed Sullivan used to call “a really big shew.”

The production has 65 singers, actors and dancers onstage, 47 musicians in the orchestra pit, enormous sets (by Peter J. Davison), gorgeous costumes (by Paul Tazewell), Edna Ferber's book about life, love and racial conflict in late 19th century Mississippi – and some of Kern's best music.

Conducted by John DeMain, the music is a melodious mix of Broadway tunes, soaring operetta arias and American classics on the order of “Old Man River,” “Bill,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Only Make Believe” and “You Are Love.

Francesca Zambello, in charge of the company’s great “Ring” cycle in 2011, directs this coproduction with other major opera houses.

In front of a segregated cast of black and white chorus members and heading up a roster of 14 principals are the leads: show boat Cap’n Andy Hawks (hilarious, rubber-legged Bill Irwin), his daughter Magnolia (Heidi Stober), show star Julie (Patricia Racette, also Madama Butterfly this summer), and romantic interest Gaylord Ravenal (Michael Todd Simpson, with a smooth voice of limited range).

Yet others – including six black dancers with gravity-defying moves, Andy's nagging wife (Harriet Harris), Joe (Morris Robinson, singing “Old Man River”) and the comic couple Ellie Mae and Frank (Kirsten Wyatt and John Bolton) – are equally, if not more, impressive.

But despite the cast’s skill and the production’s grandeur, the show is ultimately not satisfying. The problem goes deeper than a noisy, hurried overture, varying levels of amplification bouncing around the house, Racette's surprisingly disappointing rendition of “Bill,” and some individual misses.

The most obvious problem is with the story.

After the 80-minute first act ends with a high-point finale, a wedding celebration, the entire 55-minute second act is confused, confusing and downright pointless. The happy marriage falls apart; main characters drift between Chicago, Natchez and New York; 20 years pass (indicated by flipping cards showing the passage of years from 1900 to 1920); there’s a sudden reunion, and then a sudden end.

Is there a dramaturge in the house?


Show Boat

Presented by San Francisco Opera

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. June 3, June 13, June 28 and July 1; 7:30 p.m. June 10, June 19, June 26 and July 2; 2 p.m. June 22

Tickets: $24 to $379

Contact: (415) 864-3330,

artsClassical Music & OperaJohn DeMainSan Francisco OperaShow Boat

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