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Pamela Feinsilber Headshot

Afloat on the Joys of San Francisco Opera's Showboat

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I'm surprised at the opera snobbishness of the people who've wondered why San Francisco Opera is presenting a musical this summer -- that is to say, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's Show Boat. Have they never seen The Merry Widow? Would they really prefer to go to Carmen for the dozenth time instead of something new and fresh? (Not that you have to choose, opera or musical, one or the other.)

Most important, would they really let the word musical keep them from attending Show Boat?? If so -- and it's not too late to buy tickets -- that would be a shame.

I understand the lack of appeal of many typical Broadway musicals, with their often generic, bombastic, less than nuanced, overmiked voices. But as SFO's delightful Porgy and Bess, which I saw in 2009, and now Show Boat prove, a well-done production, with vibrant sets and costumes, good dancing, engaging acting, a top-tier orchestra (guest conductor John DeMain led the San Francisco Opera Orchestra for both Porgy and Bess and Show Boat), and singers with fine operatic voices, can be absolutely exhilarating. Think of Ezio Pinza on the cast album of South Pacific. Some enchanted evening, indeed!

Thus: Show Boat. Heidi Stober, who plays Magnolia, daughter of the riverboat's Cap'n Andy, has performed here recently in The Magic Flute and Falstaff. Star soprano Patricia Racette (Julie, the showboat's leading lady, who passes for white until her mixed parentage is revealed) is singing Madama Butterfly here this summer, too; bass Morris Robinson, who offers a showstopping "Ol' Man River," is also in that production. And I can't wait to see baritone Michael Todd Simpson, making his local debut as Gaylord Ravenal, the charming gambler who marries Magnolia, in something else.

A cool thing about this production, though, is that Broadway performers have been cast as well. Who wouldn't want to see the great physical actor Bill Irwin as Cap'n Andy? His hilarious one-man depiction of a fistfight is a showstopper in itself. (Irwin won a Tony in 2005, for playing George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf--!). The Broadway vets include Kirsten Wyatt (the lead in Sweet Charity, Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls), John Bolton (Spamalot, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, TV's Gossip Girls), and Harriet Harris (On the Town, Tony winner for Thoroughly Modern Millie, the indelible Bebe Glazer on TV's Frasier). James Asher, in a small role as the manager of the seedy Chicago cabaret in which Magnolia finds work after the dead-broke Ravenal leaves her, has acted in plays such as Love's Labour's Lost and The Laramie Project.

That's a lot of names and credits. My point is that the variety of actors and voices and styles adds another level of interest and enjoyment to this show. Which must lead to a shout-out for Tod Nixon, Show Boat's sound designer. Unlike musical theater performers, opera singers don't use mikes; Nixon came up with a way of placing area microphones so that the sound was consistent and clear, without that somewhat tinny, vibrating quality that microphones bring.

Premiering in 1927, Show Boat is considered the first great American musical. In 1982, Houston Grand Opera, then led by San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley, with John DeMain its music director and principal conductor, created an "historic" production that restored much of Kern and Hammerstein's original score and dialogue and was reprised seven years later. We're seeing this Show Boat thanks to Houston Grand Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Washington National Opera, as well as SFO.

In his program notes, Gockley reminds us that Show Boat is "steeped in the musical language and plot issues of our native culture" and says that it could open the door at SFO to "operatic musicals" such as Carousel and Sweeney Todd. To that I say, Yes, David, yes!

June 26, 28, July 1 and 2, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F., 415.861.4008, sfopera.com.