"SHOW BOAT" SETS SAIL AT GOODSPEED
by Tom Holehan
About thirty minutes into "Show Boat", the sturdy revival of the classic Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II masterpiece currently docked at Goodspeed Musicals, David Aron Daman takes center stage and sings "Ol' Man River" like it has never been sung before. With support from a melodious trio, this rendition of one of the musical's most popular songs simply stops the show cold. Drop anchor here folks and revel in theatrical magic that doesn't come along like this every day. One must pity the scenes that follow in "Show Boat" and, indeed, the musical never quite reaches that peak reached by Mr. Damane and company again. But, that acknowledged, there's still plenty to recommend in Goodspeed's production.
Actually any revival of "Show Boat" becomes an event if only because it is so rarely produced. The musical demands a large cast, multiple sets and the talent to tackle a difficult book (original novel by Edna Ferber) that covers nearly four decades and deals with dicey topics like race relations, marital problems, gambling and miscegenation.
Beginning in 1887, the show boat in question is the Cotton Blossom run by Captain Andy (a delightful Lenny Wolpe) and his sourpuss wife Parthy (played with appropriate vinegar and starch by Karen Murphy). On board is headline singer Julie LaVerne (Lesli Margherita) who harbors a family secret that causes her to leave the show. In Julie's absence, Magnolia (Sarah Uriarte Berry), the daughter of Captain Andy and Parthy, becomes the show's new singer and she is soon paired with dashing riverboat gambler (and future husband) Gaylord Ravenal (Ben Davis). And that's just the first year (and the first act).
Director Rub Ruggiero has, again, done an excellent job in making all the pieces fit smoothly in this ambitious production. If the musical's second act doesn't seem quite up to the first, it's more than likely the busy book which covers over 30 years and is fairly downbeat. The script demands push Goodspeed's limited space more than usual spilling the cast out into the aisles for several scenes and minimizing sets to painted backdrops and simple props and furnishings. The one major set - that of the Cotton Blossom - is nicely realized by scenic designer Michael Schweikardt though I wish more sense of the Mississippi River were in evidence. Choreographer Noah Racey, who usually achieves miracles at Goodspeed, also seems hampered this time resulting in serviceable but rather perfunctory choreography. Designer Amy Clark, however, manages to deliver exquisite costuming throughout the four decades and John Lasiter's expert lighting exemplifies that designer's reliable high standards.
Any reservations one may have about this "Show Boat", though, easily take a backseat whenever that glorious Kern/Hammerstein score gets to shine. Mr. Davis and Ms. Berry provide their own special magic to both "Only Make Believe" and "You Are Love" and the entire ensemble brings rousing new life to the standard, "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man". Ms. Margherita seems an unsure, often tentative Julie, but her singing of the gorgeous torch song, "Bill", is beautifully done. Andrea Frierson is also a delight singing "I Still Suits Me" with the invaluable Mr. Damane while Jennifer Knox and Danny Gardner, as the boat's dance team, bring plenty of fun to their song-and-dance roles. This musical milestone does represent "event" theatre and the production has already been extended a week. Book passage now.
"Show Boat" continues at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam through September 17. For further information and ticket reservations call the theatre box at : 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.