Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Show Boat"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


music by Jerome Kern; lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
book by Oscar Hammerstein II,
based on the novel “Show Boat” by Edna Ferber
directed by Zoë Bradford and Jordie Saucerman
choreography by Sally Ashton Forrest
musical direction by Michael Joseph

Steve Baker … Bill Stambaugh
Queenie … Dee Crawford
Peter … Mark McClelland
Parthy Ann Hawkes … Miki Joseph
Windy … Bob Parsons
Cap’n Andy … Dan Moore
Ellie May Chipley … Kimber Lynn Z. Drake
Frank Schultz … John King
Julie La Verne … Samantha brior-jones
Isabella … Tracy Silva
Gaylord Ravenal … Christian T. Potts
Sheriff Vallon … Rob Christman
Magnolia Hawks … Kate deLima
Joe … Karl Hudson
Jeb … Mark Ewart
Another Backwoodsman … Mark McClelland
Ethel … Chalmbra Houston
Mrs. O’Brien … Bonnie Gardner
Mother Superior … Carol Kingsbury
Jim Greene … Mark McClelland
Jake … James Valentin
Charlie … Roderick W. Wilmore
Lottie … Kathy Keefe
Dottie … Anna Silk
Little Kim … Maggie Rowe / Mabel White
Young Kim … Zoara Christman
Kim … Melanie Bernier

The Stevedores:
Jaime Cepero; Michael Quezzaire-Belle; James Valentin; Roderick W. Wilmore

Their Gals:
Alyssa Benitez; Sam Grieff; Toni Hopkins; Chalmbra Houston; Tracy Silva

Zoara Christman; Zach Eisenstein; Destiny Hopkins;
Derek Jackson; Saquan Johnson; Jessy Rowe

Townspeople Along the Mississippi and City Folk in Chicago:
Steve Alibrandi; Katrina Armando; Emily Arsenault;
Melanie Bernier; Christopher Burke; Katelyn Carbone;
Meghan Carbone; Louise Christman; Rob Christman;
Kelly Danner; Trevor Efinger; Zach Eisenstein; Marc Ewart;
Bonnie Gardiner; Ashley Hogan; Nolan Howard; Kathy Keefe;
Carol Kingsbury; Andrew Mackin; Scott Medwatz;
Chris Murray; Maureen Rowe; Sophie Shrand; Anna Silk;
Maria Stracqualursi; Nick Venturelli; Jillian Wegrocki;
George White; Jennifer White; Jenna Wigman; Allen Williams

Conductor … Michael V. Joseph
Keyboard I … Beth Stafford
Keyboard II … Sean Holmquest
Violin … Stanley Silverman
Reed I … Jacqueline Goudey
Reed II … Karen Robbins
Reed III … Joe Halko or Jen Slowik
Reed IV … David Cross or Jeri Sykes
Reed V … Joyce Harrington
Reed VI … Mark Margolies
Trumpet I … Paul Perfetti
Trumpet II … Tom Stafford
Horn I … Steve Biagini
Horn II … Emily Stafford
Trombone … Tom Milne
Trombone; Tuba … James Monaghan
Guitar; Banjo … Bill Buonocore
Bass … Matt Ambrose
Drums; Percussion … Scott Brenner

“My view has always been ‘Visibility at any cost.’ I’d rather have Negative than Nothing.” --- Harvey Fierstein in THE CELLULOID CLOSET.

No other classic American musical has broken more ground than Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s SHOW BOAT nor gone through so many revisions since its birth in 1927. (Not interpretations --- revisions.) Based on Edna Ferber’s bestselling novel about traveling actors on the Mississippi River, SHOW BOAT knitted plot, song and dance together long before OKLAHOMA! came to pass and it incorporated Ms. Ferber’s themes of racial prejudice, miscegenation and marital desertion --- topics previously unheard of in a 1920s musical. SHOW BOAT was produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, best known for his Follies, comics and showgirls; the cast boasted black singers performing side by side with white ones --- all of these milestones have long been surpassed but the Kern-Hammerstein score remains one of the musical theatre’s glories with its blend of operetta, spiritual, ragtime and razzmatazz. Mr. Hammerstein’s libretto faithfully condenses enough of Ms. Ferber’s rambling plot but those inspired to read the novel may be shocked to learn that Cap’n Andy drowns in his beloved river and when Gaylord Ravenal abandons his wife and child, he never comes back; apparently Mr. Hammerstein felt obliged to send his audiences home happy but he pulled no punches on the tragic subplot of the mulatto Julie passing herself off as white. Numerous punches have been pulled, though, over the decades but SHOW BOAT, like the mighty Mississippi, manages to keep on rolling along.

If you want as true a flavor of the 1927 SHOW BOAT as possible, the best available sources are the 1936 Universal film adaptation and the complete 1988 EMI studio recording. Directed by James Whale of “Frankenstein” fame, the film features Charles Winninger (Cap’n Andy), Helen Morgan (Julie) and Sammy White (Frank) from the original Broadway production along with Irene Dunne (the first “road” Magnolia) and Paul Robeson (Joe in the original London production) who later made “Ol’ Man River” his signature song --- these are first-generation SHOW BOATers. Beloved character actress Hattie McDaniel is Queenie and her relationship with Mr. Robeson is beefed up with a comic duet “Ah Still Suits Me” (the original Queenie was played in blackface by white actress Tess Gardella, later known for her radio Aunt Jemima); Helen Westerly is properly mean as Parthy. No doubt Allan Jones’ Gaylord was considered “dreamy” back then; today his portrayal is sappy. The film is weakened by its happy ending where the long-estranged Magnolia and Gaylord meet by chance at the very theatre where their daughter Kim, a Broadway star, is performing (he is the doorman, unbeknownst to Kim), but the scene involving Julie’s exposure as a mulatto is still powerful stuff: the actors’ reactions are swift and instinctive; they were, after all, living in segregated times and didn’t have to reach far for inspiration.

The 1988 EMI studio recording is historian/conductor John McGlinn’s loving reconstruction of the entire score with its original orchestrations and background music, resulting in a nearly-complete Act One, spoken dialogue and all; as a bonus, Mr. McGlinn includes songs that the Messrs. Kern and Hammerstein wrote for the 1936 film and the 1946 stage revival. The reinstated highlights include the foreshadowing “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Around” and the show-stopping “In Dahomey”; Queenie is further enriched with her Ballyhoo and “Hey, Feller!” The studio cast is fine down to the walk-ons, the stand-out being Teresa Stratas’ moving rendition of “Bill” --- she evokes Julie’s suffering better than anyone else, on record --- and the New Year’s Eve nightclub sequence is wonderfully atmospheric with its rowdy audience being tamed by Magnolia’s heartfelt “After the Ball is Over”. For all its excellence, though, the recording comes with a blemish: the black chorus originally hired for the project refused to sing the original opening chorus “Niggers all work on de Mississippi / Niggers all work while de white folks play….” and were replaced by an all-white one whose sound sadly smacks of compromise --- but the first musically-complete recording of SHOW BOAT, as originally written, has been preserved for posterity to rejoice and to argue over.

The major 1946 New York revival was the first to bow to the demands of Time: racial attitudes were changing, postwar audiences had become more sophisticated and musicals such as Mr. Hammerstein’s own OKLAHOMA! now made SHOW BOAT old-fashioned. Thus, “Niggers” was replaced by “Colored folks” (a censorship mistake, in my opinion), the production became bigger and splashier, a musical comedy rather than a musical play (Broadway impresario Billy Rose was now in charge), and an overlay of dance numbers were inserted. Since then, SHOW BOAT’s musical numbers have been added, switched or dropped as its producers have seen fit with the black characters becoming more and more regulated to the background (the opening chorus being one of the first casualties); Julie’s tragedy, once a part of the fabric, has become a wrinkle in the cloth to be smoothed out as quickly as possible. But is SHOW BOAT really “SHOW BOAT”, anymore? The Messrs. Kern and Hammerstein's efforts must be given their due; their bringing up racism in a musical was a tremendous gamble in itself which fortunately paid off --- WEST SIDE STORY is a direct descendant --- just because the two men didn’t provide a solution to the problem or offer positive black iconography doesn’t justify a political correction because SHOW BOAT, as constructed, cannot offer one --- it can only continue to be pared down and down and down until all that will remain is “Ol’ Man River” with the black chorus as part of the landscape. When does being politically correct become mere bowdlerization?

Take the 1951 M-G-M film version: it is bright, slick and colorful in the M-G-M tradition and Julie gets to reunite Gaylord and Magnolia for a more believable happy ending (he has been away for a mere five years, unaware that Magnolia had given birth to Kim in his absence); Ava Gardiner, once described as the world’s most beautiful woman, is glorious as Julie but after her downfall she darkens considerably so by the time Julie ends the film in a famous close-up Ms. Gardiner has turned a glowing bronze. The Gaylord-Magnolia plot has been strengthened dramatically with Gaylord’s gambling hinted enough to be an addiction; the Julie-Joe-Queenie side is diminished: Ms. Gardiner’s dubbed-in “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” is given a ladylike rendition scrubbed of its earthiness, William Warfield’s Joe does little more than magnificently sing “Ol’ Man River” and Frances E. Williams’ Queenie barely exists, making this SHOW BOAT a white love story set in the nostalgic Old South.

Harold Prince’s 1994 Broadway revival dropped some of the old numbers, added some new ones and made the hateful Parthy loveable, turning SHOW BOAT into a celebration of (white) family values (I cannot overstate that Ms. Ferber’s Parthy is a nasty, puritanical tyrant who sees the acting profession as immoral and who despises her son-in-law --- and the feeling is mutual). The revival was given the lavish Prince cinematic treatment and the “Colored folks” chorus was reinstated.

The Company Theatre uses Mr. Prince’s version (which I fear may become the standard one); even when saddled with “Colored folks”, directors Zoë Bradford and Jordie Saucerman could still have segregated their interracial ensemble whenever possible; instead, they handle SHOW BOAT with kid gloves that remain spotless: there is an easy intermingling throughout, be it on the levee, at the World Fair or in the nightclub. There is little period texture or context: the stevedores could just as well be grumbling for a raise with Joe as their well-built foreman and Queenie as a home-girl full of attitude. (Yes, the times have changed, but today’s artists must know how to re-introduce segregation to their audiences, when necessary.) Fortunately, Sally Ashton Forrest provides lively choreography that bolsters the musical’s high-spirited side, particularly “Kim’s Charleston” where the entire ensemble, all ages, sizes and shapes, gets caught up in the festivities and make the joint truly rock. The ensemble is hit-or-miss: Dan Moore offers a loveable, blustery Cap’n Andy reminiscent of the late Frank Morgan; as played by Miki Joseph, Parthy becomes a sitcom bitch not to be taken too seriously. Christian T. Potts’ Gaylord is pure cardboard and Kate deLima is a matronly Magnolia with vibrato to match; Karl Hudson, handsome in stature and in voice, offers a polite concert version of “Ol’ Man River” that earns him thunderous applause at the expense of Joe’s resignation to his lot in life. With better guidance, Samantha brior-jones could become an impressive Julie for she has the correct ambivalent look and a deceptive indolence that touches all the right bases; my only nitpick is her currently wandering about during “Bill” when she should be glued to the piano’s side and disintegrate before our eyes. The true delights are John King and Kimber Lynn Z. Drake as second-stringers Frank and Ellie: Ms. Drake is an amusing combination of bowlegged walk, cowgirl etiquette and baby-doll get-up and Mr. King’s existence alone is breathtaking: a local male dancer who can truly dance and with flair, humor and personality, to boot; his villainous barnstorming in the company’s melodrama turns the stolid Ms. deLima into the perfect stooge.

Ms. Bradford’s settings and Shirley Carney’s costumes are carefully lavish, and Michael Joseph draws a good but overly loud performance from his orchestra which, coupled with the muffled acoustics, renders much of the choral singing incomprehensible, hopefully causing audiences to seek out the complete studio recording for deciphering which, in turn, will show them what’s been missing from SHOW BOAT for the past half century. Can the original version ever float again, sailed by artists as courageous as those back in 1927?

"Show Boat" (29 July - 21 August)
30 Accord Park Drive, NORWELL MA
1 (781) 871-2787

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide