Show Boat (San Francisco Opera) Review

show boat

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.

Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro (book review)

Beyond Paradise, Andre Soares’ biography of silent and early talkie film star Ramon Novarro paints a vivid picture of a man who was charming, frustrating, generous and self-destructive.   Novarro will forever be remembered as the star of the 1925 silent version of Ben Hur – which to this writer is far more entertaining than than the lavish but sterile 1950s remake – as well fine roles in Old Heidelberg and Mata Hari.  However, his fame as a great film star is all too often overshadowed by his violent murder at the hands of two hustlers.  Kenneth Anger’s sensationalist and frankly rather vicious book Hollywood Babylon started the rumour that one of the murder weapons was a antique sex toy, but Soares manages to put this rumour to rest for good – although no doubt it will linger for as long as Anger’s book remains in print. 

Thankfully, a good two-thirds of this biography is concerned with the young Novarro, his rise to fame and his sudden fall from it.  During this early period Novarro comes across as remarkably charming, energetic and naive, and by the time the actor is dropped by MGM in the mid-thirties, the reader feels as if Novarro is their own personal friend.  In fact, it is this more personal side of the autobiography which makes it so readable.  So many biographies are really quite clinical affairs – a detailed list of dates and events – but Soares’s effort is really quite different from this.  Yes, the dates, facts and figures are there, but so is Novarro the person.  While Soares is frank about the actor’s flaws, such as his heavy-drinking and his seeming inability to fight for decent roles at MGM, he is also non-judgemental and certainly there is no dwelling on the heavy drinking or, in the later years, the actor’s penchant for hustlers. 

The final third of the book is not quite so addictive reading.  Novarro was largely inactive as an actor by this point, and sometimes one gets the feeling that Soares is having difficulty making the actor’s last thirty years as interesting as he would like them to be.  There is not so much detail of either the work Novarro was doing during this period, or the filming process (something which has vivid detail during the MGM years).  Novarro’s tragic end is covered matter-of-factlyand without sensationalism, but the effect of Novarro’s death is not felt by the reader as much one might imagine it would be when reading the first half of the book.  By this stage Novarro has gone from being an intimate friend to a casual aquaintance and, in many ways, an enigma.  The charming, naive young man has largely left the building to be replaced by a solitary man approaching old age who is struggling more and more with a drinking problem.   This isn’t Soares’s fault, of course, it is simply that Novarro’s life was far less eventful by this point.

Much of Novarro’s MGM output is now available to us on DVD, mostly through the Warner Archive series, but the most frustrating element of the book is reading about films we know we shall never see due to their status as a lost film.  As is so often the case, it is the missing films that seem the most interesting.  One can only hope that some of them re-appear in the future. 

Novarro was a charismatic, always charming figure on film and a fine actor, even if sadly largely forgotten today outside of the film buffs.  This book manages to bring to life this unfairly neglected star and is an absorbing read that is thoroughly recommended.