The problem with the San Francisco Opera Show Boat is that it is performed by an opera company. Currently being screened in cinemas in the UK, this stage production is a harmless way of spending two and a half hours, but is otherwise something of a mess – especially to those of us who know the show well.
The score of Show Boat was restored a few decades ago to that which was presented on Broadway in 1927, with the songs that had been cut since then restored to their rightful place. But not in this production. Gone were numbers such as I Might Fall Back on You, In Dahomey, and I Would Like to Play a Lover’s Part. Why? No idea. It’s not like the San Francisco production was of Wagnerian length – and, even if it was, why would that matter?
It gets even odder in the second half where not only are songs missing, but those that remain are sung by different characters and the narrative changed! Dance the Night Away was sung by Kim on the Cotton Blossom in the 1928 version of the show (it was a replacement for a different song sung by the same character in the same scene in the 1927 original), but was sung by her mother, Magnolia, in the current production – and she sings it on Broadway in a completely new scene (pictured above).
One has to wonder why a respected opera company would tackle a classic piece of American theatre that has been around for nearly ninety years and think it new better than Kern, Hammerstein and Ziegfeld and begin to rewrite it. Would they do the same with La Traviata? I don’t think so. And the changes didn’t stop there. Dialogue was also altered for no apparent reason, as were lyrics.
The opening chorus originally opened with the line “niggers all work on the Mississippi,” but here it was changed to “coloured folks work on the Mississippi.” This is political correctness gone mad. The show is partly about racism for God’s sake – cutting out the racist language that the show is criticising is just completely insane. It’s like making a film about homophobia and cutting out all the derogatory language that is part of that. What’s even more mad is that the word “nigger” was retained during the dialogue – so why edit it out of the opening chorus? The whole point of that opening line of the show is that it is hard-hitting – it told Broadway audiences in 1927 that this was no ordinary, light-hearted show.
But, all these changes aside, the whole thing completely fails as decent entertainment because it is performed by an opera company. It’s like hearing Pavarotti sing Frank Sinatra. It doesn’t work. Yes, it’s fine for some characters – Magnolia and Ravenal can be sung with an opera voice and the show loses nothing. But Julie ends up as a drunk in a bar singing torch songs – and sounds like Kiri te Kanawa when she should be sounding more like Billie Holiday. It means the whole thing doesn’t make sense for the story and the characters become unbelievable. Talking of unbelievable, Magnolia is meant to be 16 when the show starts, and yet is played by Heidi Stober who, according to my calculations, is nearer forty. Yes, in opera we’re used to this kind of casting – but this isn’t opera, it’s theatre. Sadly those behind the production failed to realise this.
Messing with the order of songs, cutting numbers and changing the narrative would be fine for viewers who don’t know the show well as they wouldn’t realise what had changed or been excised. However, when you couple this with a production that fatally casts the wrong kind of singers it’s a step too far. And all of this (complete with appalling over-acting at times) is magnified when you then watch it on a big screen in a cinema. There were some very good episodes, most notably a powerful rendition of the miscegenation scene which still moves an audience ninety years after it was written, but for the most part this was a fatally flawed production of a show that doesn’t get revived nearly often enough to start with.