Magnolia and Gaylord's doomed marriage, but enduring romance, makes up the central storyline, while a significant secondary plot involves the downward career of the talented actress and singer Julie La Verne (given a sultry and wrenching interpretation by soprano, and esteemed SF Opera regular, Patricia Racette). In an early scene, Julie's husband, Steve (Patrick Cummings), fights with his wife's spurned suitor (James Asher) and the latter takes revenge by tipping off the local sheriff (Kevin Blackton) to the illegality of their marriage under the state's anti-miscegenation law. In this way we learn that Julie is of mixed-race ancestry. A bickering but loving African American couple among the Cotton Blossom's crewmembers, Queenie (the regal soprano Angela Renée Simpson) and Joe (bass Morris Robinson in a robust, beautifully measured performance), are also significant supporting characters. Indeed, the most of the show's great songs are associated with these secondary characters, not least "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man."
The show itself strikes a knowing stance with respect to narrative, making good fun of the stilted melodramas put on by Cap'n Andy while reveling in the backstage intrigue and the characters' own double-playing onstage (a situation that nicely serves the woo-pitching in the number "Make Believe"). Even the fight that breaks out on the dock between Steve and Pete at the outset of the play gets co-opted by Cap'n Andy, who in a hasty bit of diplomacy tells the crowd it was just a preview of the night's entertainment onboard. This covering is also an uncovering, however, since it hints at the complex relationship between the stories onstage and real life in all its messiness.
Of course, what "real life" the musical expresses is still very much idealized as well as stylized. But the SF Opera production proves there's still a pulse to the 1927 narrative, and it's as vital as the enduring score with which it's intimately bound. With panache but also keen sensitivity, the show conveys Ferber's original emphasis on the shared humanity of rich and poor, white and black, and the compassion a bird's eye perspective on it all can breed. In Show Boat, absurd melodramas and life's everyday triumphs and failures play out alongside each other as so many ripples on the surface of a deep and indifferent river — a dark and mysterious universe that, in the image of the show's great recurring theme, just keeps rollin' along. *
Through July 2, $24-$379
War Memorial Opera House
301 Van Ness, SF