by ANGELA ALLEN
Liam Bonner is easy to find online. He has 1,999 Twitter followers, and he tweets about more than his busy opera schedule. He writes hash-tagged one-liners about beer, Pennsylvania sports teams, Pittsburgh (his hometown), dogs, art, and bad customer service.
“It took awhile to find my voice, but I’ve been dangerous ever since,” the 34-year-old opera singer said over coffee in downtown Portland.
Bonner is talking about his Twitter voice. His sure-footed opera voice, trained at Carnegie Mellon, Manhattan School of Music and Houston Grand Opera’s trailblazing young artist program, ranges from baritone to tenor. He can sing a high lyric baritone with an easy top register as well as a sturdy lower register.
Expect Bonner to sing up and down the bari-tenor range in Show Boat, Portland Opera’s season-closer that opens Friday, May 1, at Portland’s Keller Auditorium, and continues with four additional performances May 3, 5, 7 and 9. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. except the 2 p.m. Sunday, May 3, matinee.
The long-loved and much revived Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II 1927 Broadway musical based on Edna Ferber’s best-selling 1926 novel still has steam. PO staged Show Boat 25 years ago, but this season’s production is the Tony Award-winning Hal Prince version with sets created by the Central City Opera House of Central City, Colo.
Bonner is as easy to spot on the Show Boat stage as he is in cyberspace. His 6 feet 4 inch frame is topped by thick wavy mahogany hair (God forbid they wig this guy), and facial hair that snakes around his face, 1887-rake-style, without the beard.
Bonner appears almost too perfect for the pivotal role of Gaylord Ravenal, the handsome huckster who jumps aboard the Mississippi River’s Cotton Blossom’s floating stage and shakes up the cast, the captain’s family, and the entire boatload of white and black performers and characters. Ravenal is a double-debut for Bonner: This will be the first time he sings the role and the first time he sings in Portland.
In the second act, set years later in Chicago, Ravenal is married to and deserts the ship captain’s daughter, Magnolia Hawks (former PO Resident Artist Lindsay Ohse). They’ve had a daughter, who becomes an impressive singer. He gambles and womanizes, and acts like a cad, but such songs as “I Have the Room Above Her” and “You Are Love” prove Ravenal a multi-dimensional character, as Bonner insists most of the show’s characters are. “Gaylord has a softer side,” said Bonner, adjusting his trademark bowtie, part of his daily uniform before hipsters made it part of theirs.
Show Boat is as much about intertwining love stories and a three-generation family as it is about race and post-Civil War differences in the North and the South. The inciting moment centers on Julie (sung by former Portland Opera Resident Artist Hannah Penn), the show boat’s leading lady. Married to a white man, she “passes” for white, but is found out to be black. She’s fired, but the boat and story and music forge on, plying the Mississippi’s big waters and probing America’s ongoing, often heartbreaking, narrative of race relations.
The musical asks a crucial question with its crossover of black and white music. Are show music and dance borrowed, stolen and co-opted from blacks for the entertainment of whites? Show Boat, let’s remember, was the first big-time musical to explore race relations in America.
Co-choreographer Becky Timms, a onetime understudy on Broadway for the 1995 Prince production, works with director Ray Roderick, a colleague from such shows as Cats. Expect this Broadway team to create and pull off razzle-dazzle dancing paired with the show’s classic Broadway tunes and 200 costumes, six of which Ravenal wears.
The piece features not one, but two choruses. Chorus One has local and “imported” African-American singers, and Chorus Two is filled with Portland Opera chorus members. Of course the segregation is part of the show. And brace yourself for the “n” word as well as chestnuts like “Ol’ Man River,” “Bill,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” and “Make Believe.” The orchestra, conducted by Hal France, will be on the stage (not in the pit) and play into the house.
Other Portlandy highlights include singer/actress Susannah Mars making her PO debut as the starchy Parthy Ann Hawks, and Allen Nause, the former artistic director of Artists Repertory Theatre, who plays Capn Andy Hawks. PO Resident Artist Katrina Galka performs the role of “adult” Kim (Ravenal and Magnolia’s daughter) and Ian Jose Ramirez, another PO resident artist, plays Pete.
Among the out of town performers, keep an eye on acclaimed dramatic soprano Angela Renee Simpson as Queenie and bass Arthur Woodley, who sings Joe.
And you won’t miss Bonner. He could be singing Broadway as well as opera one of these days, though what would he do with a mike? His voice is clearly heard without one, on or off Twitter.
The two-act show, sung in English, runs 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are available online.
Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes primarily about the arts, especially music. She pursues poetry, photography and teaches creative writing in the schools. Her website is angelaallenwrites.com.
Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!