Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Show Boat steams ahead in Portland Opera production

Arthur Woodley | Photo credit: Cory Weaver
Jerome Kern’s “Show Boat” steamed across the stage at a good clip and left lots of positive impressions in its wake on opening night, May 1st, at Keller Auditorium. The success of the show, produced by Portland Opera, was due in part to placing the orchestra at the back of the stage and extending the stage floor over the orchestra pit. That brought the action closer to the audience, and in a big hall like the Keller (with its seating capacity of 3,200), the show acquired a lot more intimacy and immediacy than had been present at previous musicals. It also gave lighter-singing voices a fighting chance to be heard without amplification. That was a real plus for this kind of show, which, because it was produced by an opera company, emphasizes non-amplified singing.

The one big number that everyone knows from this show is “Old Man River,” and I’m telling you that Arthur Woodley sang that number with heart, soul, power, and his emotion resonated into the farthest corners of the house. The audience responded with bravos and loud, sustained applause, and Woodley probably could have sung it again and received another round of ardent appreciation.

Lindsay Ohse and Liam Bonner | Photo credit: Cory Weaver
Woodley aptly created an amiable Joe and was well-matched with Angela Renée Simson’s down-to-earth yet fun-lovin’ Queenie. Lindsay Ohse created a lithe and charming Magnolia Hawks whose character turns resilient but not brittle later in the show as the wife of the gambling-man, Gaylord Ravenal. Liam Bonner sang with grace and a lovely focused tone in the role of Ravenal.

As Julie La Verne, Hannah S. Penn commanded the stage with a sultry mezzo when she sang “Bill.” Susannah Mars showed plenty of starch as the prim and proper Parthy Ann Hawks and Allen Nause was excellent counterweight as the exuberant and compromising husband Andy Hawks who just wanted everyone to get along like a “big happy family.”

Megan Misslin as Ellie May Chipley and Joe Grandy as Frank Schultz added humor, peppering the show with delightful vaudeville shticks that they made look easy peasy.

Hal France guided the orchestra with a huge palette of gestures and expressions, and it was easy to see that he knew every word of every song. The orchestra sounded fine from the back of the hall. They scaled the sound way back for the lighter voices (Mars and especially Nause). Nicholas Fox prepared two choruses, and each sang with verve.

The sets, created for the Central City Opera House Association, featured a wrought-iron façade at the top with the name “Cotton Blossom,” and that nicely mimicked the set of the original Ziegfeld production of which there was picture in the program. A footbridge, which came apart in the middle so that it could be easily moved and repositioned, was all that was needed to suggest rooms on the boat and a place for lovers to meet.

Director and co-choreographer ray Roderick teamed up with co-choreographer Becky Timms to keep the story moving at a smooth pace. The large cast moved about in a natural way and efficiently moved the pieces of the sets with no collisions.

Since “Show Boat” covers a 40-year span (1887-1927), and most of those years take place in the second half of the story, the production has to cover all of the bases in a timely and coherent manner. This performance did that in a tidy manner that tied a bow around the reconciliation between Magnolia and Gaylord.Overall, this was a satisfying production, but because the singing isn't amplified, the best seats are the expensive ones closer to the stage. The remaining shows are scheduled for May 7 and  9.

Before the show started, General Director Christopher Mattaliano came onto the stage to announce next season’s lineup – “The Magic Flute,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Eugen Onegin,” and “The Italian Girl in Algiers” – all of which will take place during the summer for the first time ever. Mattaliano was wearing a cast on one of his arms because he had broken an elbow in a bicycle accident.

Scene in Chicago | Photo credit: Cory Weaver

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