Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Show Boat"

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note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Carl A. Rossi

"Show Boat"

Music by Jerome Kern; book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
based on the novel by Edna Ferber

directed and conducted by F. Wade Russo
assistant directed by Katrina Shinay
choreographed by Michelle Chassé

Gaylord Ravenal … Adam Fenton Goddu
Magnolia … Elizabeth Ann Berg
Cap’n Andy … Trent Mills
Parthy Ann Hawkes … Shannon Martinous
Queenie … Sehri Wickliffe
Joe … Nicholas Christopher, Jr.
Ellie … Jessie Muni
Frank … Peter Mills
Julie … Lori Tishfield
Steve … Mike Heslin
Sheriff Vallon … Brennan Roach
Pete … Justen Fox-Hall
Kim … Stephanie Gandolfo
Young Kim … Allegra Larson
Windy … Dan Sullivan
Backwoodsman … Lee Skunes
Jeb … Josh Pemberton
La Belle Fatima … Lisa Finegold
Mrs. O’Brien … Babs Rubenstein
Jim … Bryan Hunt
Jake … Daniel George
Man with Guitar … Rob Rodems
Charlie … Joe Longthorne
Lottie … Lindsey St. Onge
Dolly … Jackie Pock
Hazel … Rocio Valles
Old Lady on Levee … Lauren Nedelman
Barkers … Lance Mooney; Raynoldo Rumph; Edward Tolve

Alexandra Duncan; Samantha Driver; Daniel George; Ronald Gordon;
Ellen Harvey; Jordan Houghton; Ashley Korolewski; B. Dexter Lewis;
Joe Longthorne; Kathleen Lynch; Jazmin McCray; Cassie Means;
Jayme Mester; Mackenzie Miller; Marissa Miller; Robert Lance Mooney;
Lauren Nedelman; Ramone Owens; Josh Pemberton; Jackie Pock;
Jalysa Riley; Peter Nicholas Romagna; Babs Rubenstein; Raynold Rumph;
Lindsey St. Onge; Lee Skunes; Benjamin Simpson; Dan Sullivan;
Edward Tolve; Rocio Valles; Jacqueline Venson; John Victor

Taylor Avazpour; Elizabeth Damuth; Brian Dillon; Suzanna Dupree;
Lisa Finegold; Devon Frieder; Alexandra Frohlinger; Ronald Gordon;
Bryan Hunt; Eric Johnson; Alison Catherine McCarten; Ramone Owens;
Derek St. Pierre; Rob Rodems; Georgia Tapp

Conductor … F. Wade Russo
Flute/Piccolo … Na Young Ham
Oboe/EH … Michelle Zwi
Clarinet 1 … Amy Finn
Clarinet 2 … Tabitha Shepherd
Bassoon … Shelly Mohr
French Horn 1 … Nate Butler
French Horn 2 … Kirsten Dirmeier
Trumpet 1 … Luise Heyerhoff
Trumpet 2 … Will Belew
Trombone … Keith Almanza
Percussion … James Charrette; Cat Boyd
Violins … Adrianne Pope; Jin Lee; Seung Hyun Seo; Kathleen Jara
Violas … Leslie Hostetter; Josh Westerman
Cello … Francisco Vila; Jun Wong
String Bass … Christos Zevos
Banjo/Guitar … Jim Dalton
Piano … Liam Forde

“Niggers” --- the first word uttered in Jerome Kern’s SHOW BOAT, the first of the Great American Musicals. “Niggers all work on the Mississippi / Niggers all work while the white folks play…” The Deep South in segregated days, instantly evoked by black stevedores weighed down with cotton bales --- their “Cotton Blossom” is the symbol of their former slavery; next, genteel whites troop in --- dashing cavaliers, and ladies with parasols --- their “Cotton Blossom” is the name of the showboat approaching with its melodramatic entertainment. Following this double-chorus, Queenie is called “nigger” --- twice --- by the scoundrel Pete, and she rebuts him with drawn lines of her own (he is white trash); later, Queenie calls Joe, “nigger”, as he is never around to help with the chores. Oscar Hammerstein II, the most warm-hearted of American librettists and lyricists, chose to use “nigger” not to offend but to sting 1920s audiences --- racism is SHOW BOAT’s bedrock; some of its characters crash upon it while others sail over it to coincidental happy endings --- and if the 1927 Broadway cast ever wanted to research their roles, they could have headed south where Jim Crow still reigned. Over the decades, “Niggers all work on the Mississippi” has become “Colored folks”, “Darkies all” or “Here we”. Pete calls Queenie, “gal”, and Queenie calls Joe, “shiftless”, and should the director whitewash the gambler Gaylord Ravenal into a conventional leading man (in Ms. Ferber’s novel, when Gaylord abandons his wife and child, he disappears for good) and should the choreographer allow a relaxed camaraderie among its interracial cast, then SHOW BOAT becomes mere operetta set in the romantic Old South, with “Ol’ Man River” just a showcase for a bass-baritone, while the mulatto Julie becomes an embarrassment at a fancy costume party. The Boston Conservatory performance --- part production, part concert --- fell along these lines: director/conductor F. Wade Russo and choreographer Michelle Chassé clearly did not wish to offend anyone, onstage or in the audience, but even with the N-word removed, they failed to bring out segregated body rhythms in students born and raised in politically correct times and who have recently witnessed a man of mixed race becoming President of the United States. Who wants to go back to the Bad Old Days? Well, if the chosen musical is SHOW BOAT, then one must --- what does one gain from a homogenized view of racism? (How would a director bring out racial fear and hatred in today’s young performers? The mind boggles at the theatre-games that would have to be played and the emotional risks to be taken…to quote Mr. Hammerstein, “you’ve got to be taught to hate and fear” … at least WEST SIDE STORY’s animosity can coast on dance competitions between the two gangs.)

…and the Boston Conservatory ensemble coasted, for the most part, on SHOW BOAT’s still-glorious Kern-Hammerstein score; the results were pleasant to the ear if not, with one exception, moving to the soul. Adam Fenton Goddu made a bland manikin out of Gaylord Raven, paired with Elizabeth Ann Berg’s hardened canary of a Magnolia, and their voices did not blend well: Mr. Goddu sang with a honeyed vibrato while Ms. Berg threatened to blast him out of her arms (if unchecked, an operetta-belt may become Ms. Berg’s style). Right here, right now, Nicholas Christopher, Jr.’s voice lacks a lower register, so his “Ol’ Man River” was only a partial success, delivered in friendly concert-fashion (what a bitch of a song, going from low bass to high baritone!); time and vocal care and a few rude awakenings would give Mr. Christopher the colors needed on his palette to make any future Joes more memorable (remember, this is an aria of despair). The emotional high points were provided by Lori Tishfield as Julie; ripe in body and in manner --- she, alone, had the earthiness to suggest life upon the Mississippi and her revelation scene was so good that I grew impatient for her “Bill” in Act Two, and she did not disappoint: Ms. Tishfeld began at the piano, leaning against it for support rather than for sultriness and then, miracle of miracles, she crossed to center stage and stood stock-still --- stock-still! --- and let the singer drain away to reveal the heartbroken, abandoned woman underneath. There are moments when playing statue makes for greater impact, and this was one of those moments --- I thank Ms. Tishfeld, Mr. Russo and whoever else was involved, here, for justifying my theory: this “Bill” was pin-drop time. Peter Mills and Jessie Muni clowned and danced, well enough, as Frank and Ellie the second bananas.

Young performers often resort to imitation and shtick en route to characterization; thus, Trent Mills’ Cap’n Andy was so much bluster and little else, and Shannon Martinous’s Parthy, a defanged biddy instead of the mean bitch that she really is, but Brennan Roach, Babs Rubenstein and Lee Skunes were bright accents as a bad-news sheriff, an Irish landlady and a trigger-happy backwoodsman. After sitting through enough community theatre dancing that went clunk in the night, what a pleasure to see SHOW BOAT’s youngsters take to their feet in synchronized free-for-all --- a chicken-and-egg question: did Ms. Chassé tailor her choreography to fit these still-green bodies, or were the latter up to Ms. Chassé’s demands? Either way, “Hey, Feller!” the eleven o’clock number, was so joyful that I longed to submit this ensemble to GYPSY’s strobe-light sequence, flashing forward in time, just to see where and how they will be, say, ten years from now. Considering the arts are taking even more of a beating, these days, I wish these students godspeed and hope that some of them make it, like salmon leaping upstream, to friendly waters where they can evolve and keep theatre alive and well, enough.

"Show Boat" (24 - 26 April)
The Boston Conservatory Theater, 31 Hemenway Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 912-9222

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