“SHOW BOAT” DOCKS AT GOODSPEED
By Marlene S. Gaylinn
Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Show Boat,” based on a novel by Edna Ferber, was an instant hit in 1927. It was the first musical to depict a racially mixed marriage and illustrate the resentments of black people. While it was way ahead of its time, the show’s original success was probably due to its wonderful songs, not its message of tolerance.
The story, about folks associated a Mississippi showboat, features Lenny Wolpe as the likeable Capt’ Andy, and Karen Murphy as his domineering wife, “Parthy.” The outstanding leads are Sarah Berry and Ben Davis. Berry play’s the Captain’s pretty daughter, “Magnolia,” and Davis is the handsome, riverboat gambler, “Ravenal.” The couple delightfully blends their strong, operatic voices in the memorable, love duets: “Only Make Believe,” and “You Are Love.”
Lesli Margherita is “Julie,” the unfortunate, mulatto singer who is banished because of her race. She renders a touching, “Can’t Help Lovin' Dat Man” and is mesmerizing during the soulful, torch song, “Bill.”
The forever bickering, dance partners “Ellie” and “Frank” are Jennifer Knox and Danny Gardner. Jennifer is a showstopper in her charming rendition of “Life Upon the Wicked Stage.”
A special highlight is the song, “Ol’ Man River.” David Damane as “Joe,” sings it in a meaningful, but not overly defiant manner.
The role of “Joe” was originally created for Paul Robeson. Due to production delays, Jules Bledsole played the black lead upon opening. When Robeson eventually took over with his deep, bass voice, he made “Ol’ Man River” his signature song. Everyone at the time was familiar with it.
However, this song is not without controversy, because it originally contained the word “niggers.” Individuals still take sides regarding the depiction of black people in the show -- ignoring the fact that its contents are according to the time period and the story is totally sympathetic to black people. Skirting this delicate issue, the song’s words went from “niggers,” to “darkies,” to “colored folks,” to “here we all work on the Mississippi.” You can listen for the reference and decide how it is used here.
Another interesting fact is that Robeson, a communist and the object of the “Peekskill Riot,” defiantly changed the words of his solo during his concerts. Instead of “Tote that barge! Lift that bale! / Get a little drunk and you land in jail...” Robeson sang, “...You show a little grit/And you lands in Jail...” He ended the song with, “But I keeps laffin’/Instead of cryin’/I must keep fightin’/ Until I’m dyin,'”/And Ol’ Man River, /He’ll just keep rolln’ along!”
The musical was made into a couple of films and the script was revised numerous times. Hal Prince won a Tony Award for his 1994 revival.
At Goodspeed, Director, Rob Ruggiero, adjusted “Show Boat” to suit the theatre’s small stage and limited cast. The sacrifices were barely noticed. An entrance of banjo strumming, black-faced minstrels and high-stepping chorus girls performing a lively “cakewalk” was eliminated, however, a sample of cakewalk strutting appears during the second act. During “Ol’ Man River,” instead of a line of cotton bale carriers struggling up a ramp, we see just two bales being rolled by a chorus of three black men. Overall, the changes are minor and this successful show is playing to full houses.
There couldn’t be a more appropriate setting for “Show Boat” than the historic Goodspeed Opera House on the Connecticut River. It was built in 1877 - around the same time period as the musical. Another interesting fact is that Norma Terris played Magnolia in the original cast. The Goodspeed Musicals’ associated theatre in Chester is named after her.
Plays until Sept. 17