North Shore Musical Theatre's current show is the 1994 Harold Prince version of "Showboat" which combined the talents of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. The original version opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre on December 27,1927 and ran for 572 performances. Kern and Hammerstein felt that Broadway musical theatre was suffering from a lack of depth and wanted to steer away from the fluffy musical comedies and melodramatic operettas it was accustomed to. They chose Edna Ferber's sprawling novel on life on the Mississippi which dealt with unhappy marriages, miscegenation and racial prejudice. The story begins in 1887 and spans 50 years, dealing with the fortunes of an impressionable young woman named Magnolia Hawks, her father who owns a showboat named Cotton Blossom and a troubled riverboat gambler/actor named Gaylord Ravenal. Magnolia and Gaylord fall in love while acting on the showboat, eventually marry and move to Chicago. There are several subplots in the show including the repression of and nobility of the black characters and their exclusion from the turn of the century social and racial prejudice against Magnolia's mulatto friend, the tragic Julie La Verne. Director Glenn Casale casts topnotch performers who can sing, act and dance splendidly while musical director Brian Cimmet conducts a 12 piece orchestra, having taught this huge cast the multitude of songs with their intricate harmonies which soar up to the rafters. North Shore always does an excellent job on huge epic musicals and this show is another feather in their cap with the comic and poignant elements handled perfectly, giving the audience a chance to laugh as well as move them to tears. It demonstrates what a well performed musical should be. Since there is so much tragedy in the show, Harold Prince kept the happy ending of Magnolia and Ravenal reuniting at the close of the show intact which brings more tears to the crowd's eyes amidst the happiness of the moment. Bravo!
Glenn blocks this enormous cast beautifully in the theatre in the round, creating many picture post card moments throughout the show. The entire first act takes place on, at or near the gigantic two story showboat constructed by Evan Bartoletti. (The showboat is also used by the character of Joe to comment on no matter what is happening in the country, the Mississippi just keeps on rolling along as he belts out "Old Man River".) The second act takes place in and around Chicago so easily moved set pieces are utilized. Brian does a fantastic job making his orchestra and cast members sound like a Broadway show. His keen eye for harmonic balance in the singing of the musical numbers and the high quality of his musicians shine through. Choreographer Ron Gibbs recreates the Tony Award-winning choreography of Susan Stroman including the cake walk, polka, charleston, jitterbug and many others which the cast executes perfectly. The costumes are gorgeous and are designed by Florence Klotz especially impressive is Magnolia's red brocade gown for the "After the Ball" segment. The massive number of costumes which range from the 1880's to the flapper costumes of the 1920's are impressive, too. Bravo to everyone who makes this show a musical masterpiece of Americana.
The gorgeous blonde haired Teri Dale Hansen captures the innocence of Magnolia at the start of the show and makes the transition to the older more mature woman by the end of it. Her majestic soprano voice soars off the charts in her duets including my personal favorite, "Only Make Believe", where she and Gay pretend they are in love, "I Have the Room Above Her" where they actually fall in love, "You Are Love" where they decide to get married and "Can't Help Loving That Man" reprise, where as a more mature woman she changes the slow rhythm to a flapper style of the 1920"s. Teri plays well with the other performers in the show especially the warmth Magnolia feels towards Julie and her antipathy to her hard shelled mother, Parthy who comes around by the end of the show with the love of her granddaughter. Magnolia's comic side comes out the in melodrama scene where she is wooed by her beau then threatened by the villain who gets shot at by two crazy hillbillies. Teri has wonderful chemistry with her leading man, Ron Bohmer. He has a magnificent tenor voice with a strong upper register to it. He makes a dashing, handsome rogue who captures the heart of this young woman by wooing her with "Make Believe" and in their relationship with the soaring "You Are Love". He also sings the gambling song with the men called "Till Good Luck Comes My Way" but he moves the audience to tears in the reprise of "Make Believe" when he realizes he must leave his daughter, Kim played wonderfully by Kara Doherty. Ron and Teri move the crowd again at the close of the show when Gaylord and Magnolia finally reunite after their long separation. The grown up Kim is played by Erica Sweany who doesn't appear until the last scene of Act 2 but gets to strut her stuff in a huge dancing number called "Kim's Charleston".
The show stopping song, "Old Man River" is performed by Philip Boykin whom I reviewed as Caiaphas in NSMT's "Jesus Christ Superstar" and once again I say that he has one of the most amazing basso profundo voices I have ever heard. His magnificent bass voice send chills up your spine with its power and the applause it so richly deserves stops the show in its tracks. (The other men join in on the reprise of the song with five part harmony that is splendid, too.) He and Sharon Wilkins as Queenie, Joe's wife also capture the dignity and dedication to the showboat of these characters. Sharon uses her powerful voice in several numbers including "Queenie's Ballyhoo" which becomes another energetic dance segment where Queenie tries to entice the black folks to buy tickets in the balcony for the show. Another chilling and powerful number cut from the original show and from the movie versions is "Misery's Comin' Around" which starts out as a solo by Sharon and escalates into a haunting gospel melody foretelling trouble coming to the riverboat. it salutes the dignity and the pure talent of the black workers from 1887. Terry Burrell is fantastic as the tragic Julie. She gets a chance to show off her acting chops in this role as well as her lovely voice which I had the pleasure of hearing when she played the Queen in "Cinderella" in 2005 & 2006 as well as when she played Muzzy in 2005 in "Thoroughly Modern Millie". Terry delivers the goods with the soulful "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" and the torch song, "Bill" which brings the house down. Julie is betrayed by Pete, an evil cad who tells the sheriff, Julie is a mulatto married to a white man which was a crime in Mississippi. Edwin Cahill who I first met when he appeared in "Edwin Drood" in Ivoryton in 2004, plays Steve Baker, Julie's husband who heroically stands by her and leaves town by defending her against the charge of miscegenation. (Edwin has an excellent tenor voice which he unfortunately doesn't get to show off in this show.)
The massive role of Captain Andy is played by Gordon Stanley. He makes this curmudgeon come to life with his strong acting abilities. Gordon handles the comic moments throughout most of the show but finally has a tender scene with Magnolia in the "After the Ball" scene. His shrewish wife, Parthy Ann is played by the scene stealing, Audrie Neenan who excels in this role of the harridan who never stops complaining until 1927 when she finally lets her hair down when she dances the Charleston with Kim who is now a Broadway star like Magnolia before her. (Parthy has a brief respite as harridan at the start of Act 2 when Kim is born and she sings "Why Do I Love You" to the baby which is a very sentimental thing for the hard shelled Parthy to do.) The other two comic performers are Jim Walton and Melinda Cowan as Frank and Ellie Schultz. They do topnotch work in their roles, playing the dance team who always squabble with each other but end up married. Melinda sings "Life Upon the Wicked Stage" with the girls and she and Jim sing "Goodbye My Lady Love", a song and dance number. (The scene stealing Jet Thomason is hilarious as the drunk who wants to woo Ellie during the number, leading to much laughter. He also plays Pete, the evil cad who turns Julie in to the sheriff in Act 1.) Kudos to the sensational and exuberant dancing and singing chorus members, too. So for an excellent rendition of a classic musical, be sure to catch "Showboat" before it sails away. Tell them Tony sent you.