Goodspeed's Show Boat Worth Trip Up Connecticut River
By Amy J. Barry
One would be hard pressed to find a more perfect setting for Show Boat than the Goodspeed Opera House - a historic landmark where 19th century steamships docked while traversing the Connecticut River - even though the American musical classic takes place on a tad larger river: the Mississippi.
The Goodspeed stays true to its mission of reviving early musicals with this production of the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II tour de force that opened in New York in 1926 and has been recognized as the earliest musical play to go beyond light comedy and tackles serious subjects of racial inequality. It was also the first musical in which black and white actors appeared simultaneously on stage and features an interracial marriage.
Show Boat has enjoyed many revivals and several films - the 1936 version was critically acclaimed as the most true to the original play.
And Goodspeed’s production, under Rob Ruggiero’s adept direction stays faithful to the book—carefully treading the water of romantic comedy and the somber truth of the racial divide between the ship’s well-appointed privileged white class and the drably dressed, downtrodden black dock workers and kitchen help—the contrast visually enhanced by Amy Clark’s splendid costume design.
In the name of historical accuracy, The Goodspeed also made the bold decision not to eliminate the “n-word” from the dialogue, despite making audience members squirm - as it should—and despite such recent controversies as the substitution of “slave” for the offensive word in a new version of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The story, starting in 1887, spanning three generations of riverboat entertainers, mainly takes place aboard The Cotton Blossom. Set designer Michael Schweikardt has done a fine job constructing the nostalgic, homey, curved wooden interior of the vessel where dreams are made and hearts are broken.
As patriarch and matriarch of the riverboat family, Lenny Wolpe is a delight as Captain Andy Hawks, and Jennifer Knox gives new meaning to buttoned-up and sour-faced in her equally engaging performance as his antithesis and wife Ellie May.
A well-chosen cast wonderfully executes the show’s wonderful music.
Romantic leads Gay Ravenal (Ben Davis) - a good-hearted handsome riverboat gambler, and ultimately tragic hero - and Magnolia (Sarah Uriarte Berry), the Captain’s lovely daughter and aspiring performer, sing several gorgeous duets of operatic quality: “Only Make Believe,” You are Love,” and “Why Do I Love You?” pulling our heart strings without ever becoming overly sentimental.
In a commanding, moving baritone Joe (David Aron Damane) leads the Stevedores in a poignant “Ol’ Man River”… Joe and his take-charge wife Queenie (the charming Andrea Frierson) express their stubborn affection for one another in the folksy “I Still Suits Me”…Julie (Lesli Margherita) delivers a finger-snapping “Can’t Help Lovin' Dat Man.” Star of the riverboat show, she’s forced to leave when it’s discovered she’s of mixed race and married to a white man.
Choreography by Noah Racey meets Goodpeed’s usual high standard and John Lasiter’s lighting nicely captures the show’s range of moods.
Refreshingly un-corny with a meaningful storyline and superb score, Goodspeed gets an A for its choice and execution of this musical gem.
This review appeared in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers Aug. 18, 2011 and online at Zip06.com.