It's been more than 85 years since Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II opened their "Show Boat" on Broadway in the Ziegfield Theatre. From the start, it was hailed for its innovations: a dramatic, sometimes tragic story shaping how the music unfolds and a complete integration of all stage elements into an organic whole. The 1927 production was also the first time that whites and African Americans shared the limelight. Musical theater would never be the same.
Tuesday night in Denver, Central City Opera conclusively proved that even after all this time, "Show Boat" is still a hit. In the first of seven performances, the quality, energy and stagecraft of the company's production completely conquered the cavernous Buell Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex.
This spectacle took some time for me to fully embrace. I've been reviewing the company's productions for 18 consecutive years. And although they've played numerous venues in the Denver-metro area, I've only seen them in their historic opera house in Central City. Here, the intimacy and sonic perfection of the company's home field was intentionally abandoned to reach a much larger audience - and, ideally, cash in on new ticket revenue.
The only way to fill this space is through amplification - and everyone was miked, including the orchestra. Led by the redoubtable Hal France, they were seated at the rear of the stage in an ornamental terraced balcony. Considering that suspension of disbelief is the primary directive of any theatrical production, this seemed a bold move that could potentially undermine the experience.
But even in these strange surroundings this was still the Central City Opera. From production to production, they always manage a superior stage concept to support singing actors who hardly ever fail to powerfully inhabit and project their characters. The person in charge here was stage director Ray Roderick. With obviously stalwart assistance from scenic designer James Youmans; costume designer Tracy Christensen; lighting designer David Martin Jacques and sound designer Nevin Steinberg, the production was electric without a single gap in its intensity.
Facing an almost capacity house, it took Steinberg and his team a little while to figure out the best sonic balance for their sophisticated sound system. Eventually, it seamlessly contributed to the overall production.
It did help my sense of connection that some of the company's finest performers of recent seasons were key players. As the Cotton Blossom's captain and stage director, Gene Scheer triumphed in the role that more than any other ties this story together through its 47-year span of story. His comedy was spot on and his heart authentic. Soprano Emily Pulley continued her remarkable display of vocal and dramatic versatility as the mulatto character, Julie. Hers is one of my favorite operatic voices. I could never have imagined that she could so soulfully belt out torch songs like "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and "Bill."
The vocal star of the evening was baritone Troy Cook as the slick gambler Gaylord Ravenal. In his second principal role for the company, he just kept ringing out beautiful sounds, making it easy to believe that the show's young ing?ue, Magnolia, could easily fall for him. This was the delightful work of soprano Julia Burrows, who was making her company debut. She was the embodiment of the romantic side of the story and never failed to deliver sweet sounds and genuine feeling.
Comic relief delivered by Frank Schultz was in the expert hands of baritone Curt Olds, who scored as Will Parker in the company's 2012 production of "Oklahoma," and Ellie Mae Shipley, Denver-based mezzo soprano Ellen Kaye. They sang and danced to perfection.
To make this grand production possible, Central City included a chorus of 30 or so African Americans. While a few performers came from the company's "Studio Artists Program," all others had tobe recruited - just another example of the lengths it took to make this show come to life.
As spouses Joe and Queenie, company first-timers bass Soloman Howard and soprano Angela Simpson brought luxurious voices and galvanized the African-American presence throughout the production. And, yes, Howard's rendition of "Ol' Man River" stopped the show.
But surprisingly, the revolutionary racial overtones inherent in this piece seemed almost inconsequential. That might attributable to the fact that the work is dated. It seemed to me that there was either choice or oversight to not dig too deeply into that aspect of the story.
In what was without a doubt the largest production with the largest cast that the Central City Opera has ever undertaken, there was not a single drop off in quality from any of the performers. The orchestra was asked to play almost without pause and conductor France's obvious enthusiasm cajoled them to a stunning and beautiful performance.
Musical theater has many more devotees that opera. The fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stephen Schwartz and the modern incarnation of the art form often have little or no connection to opera, the basis of their passion for Broadway. This production will not only bring delight but also greater appreciation for what is currently on Broadway. And maybe, just maybe, provide a spark to discover what amazing voices such as these can accomplish on the operatic stage.
Who: The Central City Opera 2013 Festival
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Where: The Buell Theatre, the Denver Performing Arts Complex, 1101 13th St., Denver
Tickets: 1-303-292-6700, centralcityopera.org