No opera is known for its dancing interludes: interludes are what they are, from the party scene in La Traviata to the victory processional in Aida (in which, in a late ’80s Portland Opera production, Tiki the Elephant executed a demurely sculptured arabesque with her right hind leg).
But many musicals – most, really – are known as much for the dancing as the singing and the book, especially since the glory days of Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, Michael Kidd, and Bob Fosse. When I think of Show Boat I invariably think of Marge and Gower Champion dancing in the 1951 film version, though I confess I was mistaken in my memory of what they danced to. On YouTube you can see them tapping their way through Then I Might Fall Back on You with charm and éclat in choreography by Robert Alton. At Keller Auditorium, where Portland Opera is performing Show Boat (it closes Saturday night; ArtsWatch’s review is here), the number goes by so fleetingly, I had to make sure it had actually been done.
I suppose it’s predictable that when Show Boat gets promoted to the ranks of opera, the dancing would be minimized, and, as is also traditional, be given damn-all in the way of stage space for dancers (and there are some good ones in this production) to strut their stuff. The best of them is Joe Grandy, cast as Frank Schultz, the villain in the Cotton Blossom’s stage melodrama (but not in Show Boat itself), whose long legs, rubbery body and wielding of his cane in the abovementioned number are all reminiscent of Champion. When “shot” by a couple of Cotton Blossom audience members who look like fugitives from Duck Dynasty, Grandy dies dramatically and effectively, clutching his throat, collapsing to the floor, legs flopping as he’s dragged off the stage.
As Ellie May Chipley, the soubrette of the troupe, Megan Misslin moves her way pertly and provocatively as she sings Life Upon the Wicked Stage; and perhaps the most charming of the dances in the first act is a brief two-step during Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine, connubially danced by Angela Renee Simpson as Queenie and the extraordinary basso Arthur Woodley as her husband, Joe, with chorus members stepping along with them. Jerome Kern’s music is eminently danceable, always, and was played that way by the orchestra, which was conducted by Hal France.
Most of the actual dancing comes in Act II, when the time advances a decade and the scene shifts to Chicago; and then a decade or so after that, back to Natchez, Mississippi, where the Cotton Blossom is docked. But in Act I, we are treated – and I mean treated – to a physical-theater tour de force by Allen Nause as Captain Andy, when, in the best “the show must go on” tradition, he performs all the roles in a melodrama involving (of course it does) a voluminous black cape. I thought of Robin Williams’ 90-second summary of the history of modern dance in The Bird Cage, and wondered, too, if Nause had been influenced in this performance by the work he did with Jerry Mouawad when he performed in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker at Imago Theater a while back.
Period social dancing gets featured in some very clever ways in Act II, choreographed by Becky Timms and Ray Roderick, who also directed. A quite wonderful cakewalk gets danced by Chipley and Grandy; and back in Natchez, chorus members perform a pretty fantastic Charleston on the dock. But the dance that touched my heart, and my doting grandmotherly soul, was the Charleston duet by Susannah Mars as “Parthy” Hawks, grown old and tottery, and Katrina Galka as Eve, Magnolia and Ravenal’s grown-up daughter: the bond between them already has been set by Mars’ singing of Why Do I Love You to the newborn child earlier in the show.
That’s an example of dancing driving the plot and developing character in the best tradition of musical theater. I wish I’d seen more of it in this Show Boat.