BWW Reviews: Houston Grand Opera's Entertaining SHOW BOAT Dazzles and Delights

Related: Houston, Houston Grand Opera, Musical, Show Boat, Jerome Kern, Hammerstein, Francesca Zambello

Houston Grand Opera opened their Winter Repertory offerings with an impressive and rousing production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's iconic book musical SHOW BOAT. The musical historically changed the face of American Musical Theatre and introduced a genre of entertainment that many feel OKLAHOMA perfected and solidified. Despite it's classification as a musical, the show's score is incredibly operatic and requires many classically trained voices to effectively pull off a production.

Spanning from 1887 to 1927, SHOW BOAT follows the trials and eventual successes of Magnolia "Nolie" Hawks, daughter of Cap'n Andy Hawks of the Cotton Blossom show boat. The plot centers on her torrid love affair with the river gambler Gaylord Ravenal, who leaves Nolie and their daughter high-and-dry in Chicago after his gambling debts catch up to him. In his absence, Nolie goes on to discover her own talents and becomes a leading lady on Broadway. Along the way, the musical deals with racism and the contemporary public's attitudes towards interracial relationships.

Direction by Francesca Zambello brings enchanting life to the familiar story. Each of her leads embodies a character that is distinctive and journeys on their own unique and individual arcs, bringing vivacity into the nearly 86-year-old musical. Additionally, Francesca Zambello is presenting the musical in a similar fashion as the 1988 Studio Cast Recording does, making no edits to language that some may deem objectionable. The audience will be realistically exposed to the N-word, as it was used historically on the Mississippi River. Under Francesca Zambello's reigns the plot moves crisply, keeping the audience engaged in the action of the show whether it is their first experience of 1,000th with the material.

Michele Lynch's choreography is stunning, exhilarating, and captivating. She expertly works around the period costumes of the 1880s through the 1920s to create dance moments that are thrilling and wholly entertaining. Her best examples of stunning dance work are any of the times that the six featured (three white and three African-American) couples get to showcase their skill and talent.

As conducted by Patrick Summers, the opening night performance clipped along at a great pace. The score was beautifully played and sung, except for the opening of the overture. The orchestra started at differing tempos, creating a discordant and tinny sound. With a packed house, Patrick Summers quickly cut the orchestra off and restarted them, allowing the instrumentalists to showcase their own aptitude in playing the lush and harmonious music of Jerome Kern.

Sasha Cooke's Magnolia "Nolie" Hawks is sweet and loveable from beginning to end. Her arc from naïve and protected teenager to self-realized Broadway starlet is entirely believable and a joy to watch. Sasha Cooke's soprano instrument is breathtakingly beautiful, lending a decidedly and much appreciated operatic tonality to her performance. She shines magnificently on "You Are Love" and "Nobody Else But Me."

Joseph Kaiser adroitly captures the handsome, charming, snake oil persona of Gaylord Ravenal, ensuring that the audience falls for him almost as much as Magnolia does, even though we know we should be more wary of him. His voice soars through the air and delights on "Who Cares if My Boat Goes Upstream" and the reprise of "You Are Love."

Lara Teeter's Cap'n Andy is a quintessential portrait of a charismatic and magnanimous persona. He pristinely captures the audience's attention with flawless dance moves, wit, and a showman's pizzazz. Whether signing, dancing, or singing and dancing, Lara Teeter is completely entertaining and enthralls the audience with ease. Every high-energy line, song, and step radiates and resonates with complete and utter star quality.

Song and dance man Frank Schultz is perfectly played, sung, and danced by the talented and affable Houston area favorite Tye Blue. Every moment of Tye Blue's incredible and splendid performance smacks of boundless charisma and reverberates with fascinating precision. No step or note is out place, creating a performance that comfortably finds a place in the heart of the audience and will be cherished for years to come. Moreover, Tye Blue's performance on "I Might Fall Back on You" is simply spellbinding.

Lauren Snouffer plays Ellie May Chipley with poise and vivacious life. Lauren Snouffer's dancing and singing only match her animated and sprightly personality, as she brings whimsical and enthralling life to Ellie May Chipley. She sparkles and dazzles in her performances of "Life on the Wicked Stage" and "I Might Fall Back on You."

Marietta Simpson breathes brilliant life into Queenie, an African-American woman that society wants to oppress despite her ability to stand up for herself. At the top of the show she unabashedly talks back to Pete and challenges his superiority over her, which sets into motion the major conflict of the first act. This trait continues, and is even peppered with humor as she constantly derides her husband for being "lazy" and "shiftless." Marietta Simpson's singing on numbers like "Mis'ry's Comin' Round" and "Queenie's Ballyhoo" is sublimely evocative and emotionally stirring. Her unwavering voice gleams with lustrous control and luxurious emotional depth.

As Joe, Morris Robinson awes and electrifies the audience. His rendition of the "Ol' Man River" solo brought the opening night audience to show-stopping applause that lasted for about five minutes. The male African-American chorus joined in with him to finish the song after the applause break, and together they earned another five minutes of show-stopping applause. Morris Robinson's rich, deep bass carries through the auditorium with ease and is superbly expressive and emotionally gripping. His Joe, usually providing comic relief as Queenie castigates him for being lackadaisical really bares his soul with "Ol' Man River" and each of its reprises.

Melody Moore plays and sings Julie LaVerne with heart and grace. The audience reels for her when she decides to leave the Cotton Blossom, and our hearts break when she sneaks out of the Trocadero so Magnoila and Frank won't see her there. Her vocal skill on "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and "Bill" is simply lovely.

David Matranga effortlessly wins the audience over as the dashing, daring, and brave Steve Baker in the first act, but his second act Max is slimy and unlikeable. These diverse approaches to characterization help the audience to not recognize that he is playing two characters, while ensuring that his performances are dynamic and gratifying.

The rest of the cast and large ensemble mesmerize the audience as well. Each does their duty to ensure that the show's story is realistically, wondrously, and beautifully told and sung.

More On: Sasha Cooke, Joseph Kaiser, Marietta Simpson,

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David Clarke David Clarke has had a lifelong love and passion for the performing arts, and has been writing about theatre both locally and nationally for years. He joined running their Houston site in early 2012 and began writing as the site's official theatre recording critic in June of 2013.

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