The Washington National Opera’s production is a groundbreaking new work that challenges audience with a deep and nuanced examination of the many ways that racial politics and marital tensions intermingle across a complicated economic reality, eventually illuminating complex and crucial truths about -
No, seriously. It’s Showboat, the modern ur-musical, the production that was old when your mom first went to the theater. We’re not at its centennial yet, but we’re closer to the day “Ol’ Man River” turns 100 than we are to the 20th century. I’m sure we’ll see a revival then too. And every other year between now and then.
Which isn’t to say there’s nothing worth seeing here. Washington National Opera’s Showboat is a beautiful creature in every way. It’s well-acted, lovingly staged, and sung, at turns, competently and transcendently. It may not be new or different than any other of the thousands of times it’s been produced, but if you want to see the show that represented a pivot in Broadway musicals then this is as good a chance as any.
That’s not to say the show isn’t without challenges. You may have your own opinions on whether Showboat represents an inherently racist message. I expect you’ll leave with the same opinions on the matter you came in with. The story, after all, remains the same. I don’t think the cause is helped by the fact that it is implausible that the world would elevate Magnolia to stardom when Alyson Cambridge as Julie so far outshines her, but perhaps we can give Director Francesca Zambello credit for making a commentary about how unfairly the deck is stacked against people of color.
There’s a few other standouts as well. Morris Robinson delivers a bone-rattling bass and conveys Joe’s weariness with subtle grace. Angela Renée Simpson’s Queenie sounds lovely whether she’s doing a lighthearted sales pitch or a pessimistic foreshadowing. Physically I’m torn between whether I was more impressed with the ensemble dancers or Lara Teeter’s Captain Andy, who never lets you doubt he could command the attention of an unruly crowd.
I couldn’t tell you whether it was an issue with the production or the hall which made some of the midrange voices and ensembles difficult to make out but there were times when I was glad for the overhead titles. Discussion of the Opera House’s acoustics are a long-running DC hobbyhorse and this production wasn’t going to put the question to bed.
If you’re looking for new and different you can sit back and wait for later in the year when the WNO’s Opera Initiative puts on some new and original works. If you’d like to see a classic live and with a huge cast and lovely sets then this may be your show.
Showboat performs through May 26, 2013 at the Opera House at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The Kennedy Center is located at 2700 F Street, NW Washington, DC 20566. Closest Metro stop: Foggy Bottom/GWU (Orange/Blue line). For more information call 202-467-4600