BWW Reviews: New York Philharmonic's SHOW BOAT

BWW Reviews: New York Philharmonic's SHOW BOAT
Vanessa Williams (Julie) in Show Boat (Photo: Chris Lee)

All aboard! The Cotton Blossom has docked at Lincoln Center for this week only. Wednesday night, the New York Philharmonic opened its semi-staged production of Show Boat. Featuring a star-studded cast, the Philharmonic's short run of this American masterpiece is not to be missed.

This 1927 work by Kern and Hammerstein is considered (by some) to be the first American musical. Regardless of whether or not it was the first American musical, it may be the most American musical because it places our nation's difficult histories with slavery and race center stage. For that, Show Boat is important for every American to see.

Thankfully, Show Boat has increasingly made port in opera houses across the United States, and audiences are rediscovering this important work. On occasion, putting on Show Boat in an opera house can be a clumsy affair. The chorus is used to singing Verdi or Wagner most nights a week. While some actors and singers are hired from the musical theater community, the orchestra can't really swing the score the way players on Broadway can. Yet, today's Broadway orchestra are sized no where near what is required to realize this music.

The New York Philharmonic is perhaps the ideal institution to produce a Show Boat, today. The Philharmonic itself handled Kern's subtly considered orchestral colors with care, without making the music sound to dusty as opera orchestras often can. Even the masterly written underscoring was played perfectly, yet everything still danced along. In fact, throughout several numbers, I could feel feet thumbing, as audiences members danced along in their seats.

And, because the New York Philharmonic has such a strong tradition of working with performers outside of "traditional" classical music, it was able to assemble a terrific cast. That's not to say the cast was perfect. But, in Show Boat, not every singer needs the chops to sing Handel. In fact, many of the roles are enhanced with singing that is more natural, almost to the point of being comically bad at times. Still, the overall balance in the Philharmonic's cast would be hard to beat.

Vanessa Williams led the cast in the role of Julie, the star performer of the Cotton Blossom whose life deteriorates into poverty and addiction after she is the victim of institutionalized racism. Considering the cast rehearsed this production for only a week and a half, Williams convincingly portrayed the troubled chanteuse. Her performance of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" in Act I was better than any I've heard in recent years. Her voice was even throughout her entire register, and her low notes were impressively strong. "Bill" in Act II earned well-deserved applause.

During intermission, when I heard one audience member remark to her companion, "He's more of a baritone, he didn't have the low notes," I knew immediately that she was speaking about Norm Lewis's lackluster "Old Man River." Typically, singers with booming bass voices are cast in this role. But, because Lewis was so very charming and natural in "Ah Still Suits Me," when his character Joe argues with his wife Queenie, I enjoyed his performance overall. Queenie herself, portrayed by NaTasha Yvette Williams, gave a chilling "Mis'ry's Comin' Round," and a rousing rendition of "Queenie's Ballyhoo."

Julian Ovenden played Gaylord Ravenal, the "no account river fellow" who swoons and then swindles Magnolia. Knowing his primary claim to fame is Downton Abbey, my expectations for him as a singer were rather low. But, I'm happy to put my tail between my legs and admit that he was decent. Ovenden's "You Are Love," both in its initial performance in Act I as well as during the Act II reprise, was a bit strained, however. His instrument could not handle the song's broad phrases which are often sustained at pitches a bit higher than his tessitura.

BWW Reviews: New York Philharmonic's SHOW BOAT
Lauren Worsham (Magnola), Julian Ovenden (Ravenal) (Photo: Chris Lee)

Lauren Worsham, as Magnolia, was adequate. When she first entered in Act I, her acting was a bit noisome. But then I remembered that Magnolia is not yet 18 years old when the story begins. Though I prefer my Act I Magnolia a little less sweet and naïve, Worsham was commendable in showing Magnolia's journey, which spans over forty years. Still, she lacked the pathos needed to show Magnolia at her lowest, when she has been abandoned by Ravenal and is desperate to find work to support herself and her daughter. Vocally, Worsham left some to be desired. Her vibrato was a bit too tight and her sound a bit too cool for my tastes. But, hearing Worsham's Magnolia makes me curious to watch as the young performer's career develops and her voices matures and mellows.

Alli Mauzey, playing the comic actress Ellie, was quite enjoyable. I'm used to seeing performers ham up the role a bit more, and I enjoyed her slightly more subdued interpretation. Her "Life Upon the Wicked Stage" was a little too Wicked and not enough Show Boat, though. While I do not mind when performers add more contemporary vocal stylings, Mauzey took me out of the Mississippi and into the Hudson. Christopher Fitzgerlad, playing Elli's husband Joe, however, honored the musical style of the original work without sounding too old fashioned. His sweet, crooning tenor was lovely in "Goodbye, My Lady Love."

Fred Willard was a natural Cap'n Andy, and was especially hilarious in Act II, when he appears drunk at the New Year's Eve party. He and Jane Alexander, as his wife Parthy Ann Hawks, earned a lot of laughs throughout the evening.

Aside from an impressive cast of soloists, the Philharmonic's Show Boat boasts an excellent ensemble. Everyone worked together to bring this semi-staged production to life, including teching small "scene changes" - all of which were perfectly executed and never obtrusive. More than just a concert performance, this Show Boat has furniture, props, and even fully choreographed dance numbers. Two ensemble members received a roaring applause for their tap dancing in "It's Getting Hotter in the North." Choreographer Randy Skinner should be commended for making the most of such minimal playing space at the end of the stage.

The Philharmonic's Show Boat "keeps rolling along" through Saturday, November 8th.

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From This Author Stephen Raskauskas

Stephen Raskauskas is passionate about the performing arts. As a performing artist, he has collaborated on productions acclaimed by the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, (read more...)

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