MUST SEEREVIEWSTheatre ReviewsTom Williams

Show Boat at the Lyric Opera of Chicago

In a New production

Music by Jerome Kern

Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Based on the Novel Show Boat by Edna Ferber

Directed by Francesca Zambello

Conductor: John DeMain

Choreographer: Michele Lynch

At The Lyric Opera of Chicago

Show Boat is a triumph as it blends the best of opera  tradition with musical theatre in a truly American songfest

I have seen several terrific productions of  Show Boat including the Hal Prince production that played at the Auditorium Theatre in 1994-95. But I must say that Francesa Zambello and the creative folks at the Lyric Opera of Chicago need to be proud of their triumphant rendering of the 1927 classic.  Their Show Boat has all the freshness and rich operetta tone of the original yet it still resonates today. The original orchestrations and the blending of full-voiced opera stars with the cream of “A” list Chicago musical comedy and stage actors gave depth and full character development to the classic operetta/Broadway musical.

Show Boatat the Lyric Opera of Chicago

Running an unheard of 575 performances in 1927-28,  Show Boat changed the Broadway musical forever. It was the first show to combine a strong story about human relations as it integrated songs to further the story and to reveal character. Book and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II worked with composer Jerome Kern to convert Edna Feber’s novel, Show Boat, for the stage with the enthusiastic backing of producer Florenz Ziegfeld.

Show Boat at the Lyric Opera of Chicago

Kern’s score was flavored with era correct harmonies (1880’s – 1920’s) diversified including work songs, love duets, comic ditties and heartfelt anthems. In Show Boat, the songs emerge seamlessly and naturally from the dialogue. We hear a pre-love song, the lush  “Make Believe,” a foreboding lament with “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun” with several uptempo ‘happy songs’ such as “Can’t help Lovin’ Dat Man.”

Show Boat at the Lyric Opera of Chicago

The haunting thematic “Ol’ Man River” was nailed by the rich-voiced bass baritone Morris Robinson while Ashley Brown (Magnolia) and Nathan Gunn (Gaylord Ravenal) exuded their love at first sight with “Make Believe,” “You Are Love” and “Why Do I Love You?”

Show Boat at the Lyric Opera of Chicago

Show Boat is filled with humor, powerful drama (miscegenation and family abandonment) while telling the story of a nation struggling with social, political and economic change. With sweeping melodies, smart lyrics and a host of spot-on performances, the Lyric’s Show Boat is the musical event of 2012!

Show Boat at the Lyric Opera of Chicago

Nathan Gunn and Ashley Brown exhibited electric stage chemistry as heard in their duets; Alyson Cambridge’s acting chops extended to her truthful spirited “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” with help from Angela Renee Simpson’s Queenie. Cambridge’s heart-felt rendition of the torch-song “Bill” gave me goose-bumps.

Show Boat at the Lyric Opera of Chicago

The strong chorus  was stirring with the white and African-American singers sweetly rendering the Kern/Hamerstein tunes. Ross Lehman, Cindy Gold, Ericka Mac, Bernie Yvon, James Farruggio, Brian McCaskill, John Lister and Renee Matthews each contributed yeoman turns in sporting roles.

Show Boat at the Lyric Opera of Chicago

Zambello’s Show Boat was rightfully mounted with respect for the material that made for a look and feel of the original production. The result was a theatre/opera piece that filled the Civic Opera House with toe-tapping nostalgic pure Americana music. The spirit of a young nation and its diversified people is celebrated in Show Boat.  This truly great stage spectacle is a “must see” for serious musical theatre patrons and it will be enjoyable for classical opera fans (like me).  The audience enthusiastically gravitated to Zambello’s production. The after show ‘buzz’ was electric – that bodes well for future Broadway musicals planned for the Lyric Opera. If you see only one musical this year-make it Show Boat – you’ll remember it for years. Kudos to the Lyric for mounting and respecting the defining American musical.

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

For more info checkout the Show Boat page at

Running time is 3 hours, 10 minutes with intermission, through March 17, 2012


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