By Roz Friedman
Congratulations to Michael C. Price, founder of Goodspeed, for maintaining the highest level of excellence for almost 50 years! Kudos to him for finding Rob Ruggerio, director extraordinaire of musicals. Following his great successes and awards for 1776, Big River, Camelot and Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun on Goodspeed’s tiny stage, Ruggerio is now presenting his dynamic version of Show Boat. This 1926 musical, based on Edna Ferber’s novel of the same name with a hard-hitting Book & meaningful Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and gorgeous music by the incomparable Jerome Kern, broke all racial barriers. In fact, it was the first racially integrated musical, which dealt with issues like racism and miscegenation, and where black and white performers appeared and sang together on stage!
All the action in the first act takes place on the Cotton Blossom, a show boat that travels to the towns along the Mississippi. The large cast, costumed well by Amy Clark, is amazing. Captain Andy, played by the ebullient Lenny Wolpe, presides over this floating entertainment center, and tries to manage all the problems, familial and professional. His wife, Parthy, is a tough customer always criticizing him and others. She is especially angry that her daughter, Magnolia, loves Julie, the star of the show. As Parthy, Karen Murphy does a good job of creating an uncomfortably negative character here; Sarah Uriarte Berry is lovely as Magnolia and possesses a soaring soprano voice; Lesli Margherita is stunning as Julie, the tragic role here. Early on, when it is reported that Julie is a Mulatto, a product of a white mother and a black father, she is told by the sheriff she cannot perform and must leave the ship. Her loving husband, a white man, actually cuts her hand and sips her blood to prove he is also black, but they are forced too flee. Later, Julie is deserted by her husband and falls into alcoholism.
Meanwhile, Magnolia falls in love with Gaylord Ravenal, a handsome drifter, played by the very attractive Ben Davis; Parthy finds out that Ravenal was tried and exonerated for murder, but it does not dissuade her innocent daughter from marrying him. . They have a child, Kim, and move to Chicago, where he gambles, loses what little money he has, and then deserts them. Magnolia becomes a singing star and finally retires and returns to the showboat. Danny Gardner as Frank and Jennifer Knox as Ellie are a pair of gifted dancers who aspire to better things.
As a counterpoint, there is a group of black performers, who are the workers on the boat. They are led by Joe, portrayed by David Aron Damane. His deep, resonant voice and imposing demeanor resound in the famed song, “‘Ol Man River.” Just as there have been many revisions of Show Boat over the years both on stage and on film, there have been some changes because of Goodspeed’s size and in the lyrics of this song. Here, the director, with the permission of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, uses “Colored Folk work on the Mississippi” instwad of the “N” word.
Set Designer Michael Schweikardt and lighting designer John Lasiter have created an interesting two level set with stairways and a balcony where the large cast can be accommodated. Even the aisles are used for exits and entrances. But in the long run, the glorious score reminds us of the beauty that once was: “Only Make Believe,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” Life Upon the Wicked Stage,” “Why Do I love You,” “Bill” and the lilting waltz, “After the Ball Is Over.”
It is no surprise that Show Boat has been extended through to Sept 17.
(Ruggerio is using the 1946 published script with certain changes appropriate to the size of the theater. Some words are also different. I.e. in the opening scene, where a group of black workmen on the docks sing ‘Ol Man River,” the “N” word is replaced with “colored folks.”)
(This review originally aired on WNFR Fine Arts radio.)