Ashley Brown and Nathan Gunn
in Show Boat
(© Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera of Chicago)
Ashley Brown and Nathan Gunn
in Show Boat
(© Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera of Chicago)
Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Show Boat does high honor to this ground-breaking 1927 musical, which features one of the finest scores in all of American theater -- an astute mix of operetta and Broadway.

Director Francesca Zambello has assembled a first-rate cast, led by opera singer Nathan Gunn as gambler Gaylord Ravenal and Broadway soprano Ashley Brown as his long-suffering wife Magnolia, that not only sells every one of Show Boat's numbers under conductor John DeMain, but which also has the chops to sell the dialogue scenes and comedy.

Indeed, the thrill - and challenge - of Show Boat is to do justice to legendary composer Jerome Kern's lush music, which balances soaring romantic melodies against early-jazz rhythms and the inspiration of Negro spirituals, and Oscar Hammerstein II's compelling lyrics and dramatic adaptation of the original Edna Ferber novel, which give the show its heart and soul.

In what proves to be a wise move, Zambello has cast not just Gunn, but opera singers Alyson Cambridge as mulatto Julie, Morris Robinson as stevedore Joe, and Angela Renee Simpson as his wife, Queenie to complete musical-theater favorites Bernie Yvon and Ericka Mac as song-and dance team Frank and Ellie and the excellent Ross Lehman as Captain Andy.

Connoisseurs (and there are many) of Show Boat -- and its long, checkered history -- will understand that a definitive version of the musical simply does not exist, and that substantial sections of music and story are likely to be left aside in any production.

This outing shortens the romance of Ravenal and Magnolia in Act I and eliminates the Act II rise of their daughter Kim to stardom. As a result, Ravenal's Act I solo, "I Have the Room Above Her," and "Kim's Charleston" in Act II have been deleted, but Zambello has added -- as they rarely are -- "When the Sports of Old Chicago" and Queenie's "Hey, Fellah!" in Act II.

The majority of the orchestrations are Robert Russell Bennett's 1927 originals, but one wishes that DeMain had not taken several numbers a tad too slow (such as "Life Upon the Wicked Stage").

Paul Tazewell's heavily red, white and blue "American" costumes are lavish and period-accurate, but too gaudy, while Peter J. Davison's inconsistent set design makes brilliant use of stylized urban backdrops in Act II but sets all of Act I against a spare-looking blue cyclorama.