Theater Review

Dallas Opera spares no expense with history-making Show Boat

Dallas Opera spares no expense with history-making Show Boat

Show Boat at Dallas Opera
The cast of Show Boat at Dallas Opera. Photo by Karen Almond
Show Boat at Dallas Opera
Michael Todd Simpson as Ravenal and Andriana Chuchman as Magnolia. Photo by Karen Almond
Show Boat at Dallas Opera
Morris Robinson singing "Old Man River." Photo by Karen Almond
Show Boat at Dallas Opera
Dallas Black Dance Theatre fills out the ensemble. Photo by Karen Almond
Show Boat at Dallas Opera
Alyson Cambridge as the downtrodden Julie. Photo by Karen Almond
Show Boat at Dallas Opera
The sets are borrowed from Lyric Opera of Chicago's production. Photo by Karen Almond
Show Boat at Dallas Opera
Broadway performers Kate Loprest and Jeffry Denman as Ellie May and Frank. Photo by Karen Almond
Show Boat at Dallas Opera
Show Boat at Dallas Opera
Show Boat at Dallas Opera
Show Boat at Dallas Opera
Show Boat at Dallas Opera
Show Boat at Dallas Opera
Show Boat at Dallas Opera

Though not technically an opera, Show Boat is a natural fit for such a company to perform.

Dallas Opera, using Francesca Zambello's Lyric Opera of Chicago production, has breathed new life into the American classic with soaring voices and nuanced performances.

The sheer scale of Show Boat, based on Edna Ferber's sweeping book, can be intimidating. Spanning from the late 1800s to the 1920s, it follows the daughter of a river boat entertainer as she herself becomes a performer, falls in love, sees the world, deals with poverty, and then catapults back into stardom later in life.

Peripherally we also see how the world changes around her, from the beauty of the Chicago World's Fair to the ugliness of slavery and racism.

The grand set and costumes of this production steadily increase with each scene; expense clearly wasn't an issue here. The large cast that populates the Winspear's stage is also rounded out with dancers from Dallas Black Dance Theatre, who get plenty of opportunities to steal the spotlight with Michael Lynch's vibrant choreography.

Andriana Chuchman brings a playfulness to Magnolia, imbuing her with girlish enthusiasm at first and quiet strength by the end. Matching her in voice but not in acting chops, Michael Todd Simpson is a rakish Ravenal when he's singing.

Alyson Cambridge and Angela Renee Simpson each shine in their brief star turns — Cambridge as the imperiled songstress Julie and Simpson as wise companion Queenie. 

Two other smart moves gives this Show Boat fresh life. Company member Morris Robinson does deep, rumbling justice to the show's signature tune, "Old Man River," letting Jerome Kern's melody increase in urgency and giving Oscar Hammerstein II's eye-opening lyrics a streak of anger. However, Dallas Opera shies away from a few of the musical's controversial lines, having them spoken by the actors but not projecting the words above the stage with the rest.

Casting Broadway talent in the form of Jeffry Denman and Kate Loprest as the vaudeville couple Ellie May and Frank also scores, as their comic skills and dance ability give a lift to the otherwise mainly serious story.

You're not likely to see this early American gem, which many credit as changing the course of American theater when it premiered in 1927, performed in such lavish style again for a long, long time.

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Dallas Opera's production of Show Boat plays again on April 29 and May 1.