Lyric Opera of Chicago

All aboard! Show Boat docks at Lyric

Press Release Letterhead
Thurs., Jan. 26, 2012

All aboard!!
A spectacular new production of the American musical
to dock at Lyric Opera of Chicago Feb. 12 - Mar. 17
starring Ashley Brown, Nathan Gunn, Alyson Cambridge, Morris Robinson, Angela Renée Simpson, Ross Lehman, Cindy Gold, Ericka Mac, Bernie Yvon
John DeMain, conductor and Francesca Zambello, stage director

Show Boat , the seminal American masterpiece with music by Jerome Kern and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II (based on the Edna Ferber novel), will have its Lyric premiere in a stunning new production starring Ashley Brown, Nathan Gunn, Alyson Cambridge, Morris Robinson, Angela Renée Simpson, Ross Lehman, Cindy Gold, Ericka Mac, and Bernie Yvon, conducted by John DeMain and directed by Francesca Zambello.

Show Boat is among the outstanding works of American music theater that have a place in opera houses nationally and internationally. It is the first major musical that was truly American; what came before it was predominantly European in style. Based on Ferber’s 1926 novel, Show Boat compellingly tells the story of a group of performers while also addressing the racial and societal upheavals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a captivating drama, all-American in its subject, in its musical style and inspiration. This new production anticipates Lyric’s annual commitment to American music theater, starting with a new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! in the spring of 2013, which is part of the Renée Fleming Initiative.

“It’s important that great opera companies such as Lyric produce a breadth of repertory that encompasses not only the great international masterpieces but also great works of our own country,” says Anthony Freud, Lyric’s general director. “One of the greatest works of music theater that the U. S. has produced is Jerome Kern’s Show Boat. It reinvented the language of musical theater, making it serious, profound, emotionally intense, and not only tuneful but tremendously moving.

Show Boat is a piece that benefits greatly from the resources and forces of a major opera company,” Freud adds. “Audiences will be astonished at its impact when performed by Lyric’s wonderful orchestra and chorus, and with the fantastic cast made up of singers from the worlds of opera and of musical theater.”

Francesca Zambello has directed Show Boat twice previously: in a fully staged production at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2006, and in a semi-staged production at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2008.

Show Boat is a work that set a benchmark for everything to come,” says Zambello. “We could not have had Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, or Sondheim without this work. Nor could we have found a bridge from opera to our own American art form. I have long believed that musical theater is ‘our’ version of opera. We now need to find a way to allow opera and musical theater to live harmoniously in our American theater and opera-house landscape.

Show Boat has it all,” Zambello declares. “It gives us a rich musical study in opera, operetta, vaudeville, and musical comedy, but – equally important – a compelling American story of social and political importance.  Based on the classic Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, it tells a complex tale of the inhabitants of a Mississippi River show boat from the1880s through the 1920s, in which the lives of the Hawks family and their troupe on the boat parallel the vast social changes of the time. Through Magnolia Hawks, a young girl coming into womanhood, the story confronts the powerful issues of miscegenation and racial injustice along with the tenderness of youthful love and the tragedy of abandonment with a child. Ferber’s story took a clear-eyed, revolutionary look at the sprawling, messy society of the post-Emancipation years, the Industrial Revolution, and the conflicts between the North and South – issues still with us today.  Kern wrapped it in joyous and heart-breaking songs that have become part of the fabric of our lives. The work is compellingly historic and contemporary all at once.”

Zambello notes that most of Act Two takes place in Chicago, and worked closely with her creative team to recreate the world of the Mississippi show boats, the theater on the boat, the levees, the 1923 Chicago Columbian Exposition, the Palmer House, and the Club Trocadero in Chicago, and the streets of New York City.

The performers are opera singers, musical-theater performers, and dramatic actors. “We have cast opera singers in the roles of Ravenal, Joe, Julie, and Queenie, and musical-theater performers as Magnolia, Ellie, and Frank, while using actors for the spoken roles,” Zambello says. “The work also has two chorus groups (one Caucasian and one African-American), as well as dancers. Only in an opera house could we get this mix of performers. Lyric is the perfect company to launch Show Boat on the operatic stage. To explore these characters and these issues in an opera house as the composer intended, with a great big chorus and orchestra, and one hit tune after another is thrilling.”

Lyric Opera Premiere / New Production

SHOW BOAT  / Jerome Kern (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics) 
(in English with projected English texts) 12 performances beginning at 7:30 p.m., except for matinees at 2:00 p.m.
Feb. 12 (mat), 13, 17, 18, 22, 25, 28, Mar. 1 (mat), 2 (mat), 7 (mat), 9, 14, 17

            Premiered on Broadway in 1927, Show Boat contains some of the best-loved songs of the 20th century, including “Ol’ Man River,” “Bill,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” and “You Are Love.” One of the most captivating visions of theatrical life ever presented on the American stage, this work blazed a trail for shows bridging the gap between opera and musical theater. Kern and Hammerstein were able to integrate songs into the drama as none of their musical-theater predecessors had done. The show boat of the title is the Cotton Blossom, depicted from 1880 up through the1920s. The captain’s daughter, Magnolia Hawks (soprano Ashley Brown, debut), has a fine life on the show boat, thanks to the affection of her friends – the stevedore Joe (bass Morris Robinson, debut), the cook Queenie (soprano Angela Renée Simpson, debut), and the acting company’s leading lady, Julie LaVerne (soprano Alyson Cambridge).When Julie, a mulatto, and her husband Steve Baker (actor James Farruggio, debut), the company’s leading man, are threatened with arrest for miscegenation and leave the show boat, their roles are given to Magnolia and Gaylord Ravenal (baritone Nathan Gunn), a rakish gambler. After the two marry – despite Magnolia’s mother’s objections – and settle in Chicago, Ravenal’s luck runs out. Deeply ashamed, he leaves his wife and their daughter. When Julie, now singing at Chicago’s Trocadero, overhears Magnolia auditioning there, she purposely sacrifices her position so that it can be Magnolia’s. On New Year’s Eve at the Trocadero, Magnolia sings and becomes a star. 

The production team includes stage director Francesca Zambello and conductor John DeMain, set designer Peter J. Davison, costume designer Paul Tazewell, lighting designer Mark McCullough, sound designer Mark Grey, and choreographer Michele Lynch (debut).

Generous sponsors for this new production are The Elizabeth Morse Genius Charitable Trust, The Elizabeth Morse Charitable Trust, Mr. and Mrs. William C. Vance, the Mazza Foundation, Jim and Vicki Mills/Jon and Lois Mills, Roberta L. and Robert J. Washlow, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Photographs are available on request – please contact Carrie Napolilli Krol,

Cast headshots and preview images can be downloaded using this link:

Production images will be available on Feb. 10.