by David A. Rosenberg
Like B.C. and A.D., there’s “Before Show Boat” and “After Show Boat.” The 1927 work bv Jerome Kern (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics and libretto, based on Edna Ferber’s novel) marks the turning point in the history of the American musical theater. Before, there were European-style operettas and dippy tippy-tappy diversions; after, were “Pal Joey” (music by Richard Rodgers) and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma,” on a continuum that includes other trailblazers, “Of Thee I Sing” and “Lady in the Dark.”
At Goodspeed Musicals, the Kern-Hammerstein masterpiece is being given a realistic, rueful, intimate, musically astute, joyless production. In the estimable director Rob Ruggiero’s conceit, we’re all participants in a fraught life upon the very wicked stage. Thrusting the action into the audience by having characters sometimes enter and leave via an aisle and encouraging spectator reactions, forces intimacy and figuratively reveals flaws beneath the stage makeup.
Goodspeed’s Victorian interior easily doubles for that of the Cotton Blossom’s interior theater. (The story begins in 1887 and ends in 1927.) Wisely, there’s no attempt to depict the boat itself docking in Natchez. Instead, on the act curtain is a painting of the Mississippi paddle wheeler. Half the sky is ominous, the other half bright, mirroring the show boat’s production of “Tempest and Sunshine.”
Although many conflicting versions of the original production exist, Ruggiero has cleverly cobbled together a libretto that makes room for the most familiar melodies and adds essentials. Chief among the latter is the gorgeous “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’” which was dropped after the first out-of-town performance, yet given short shrift here. Also added is “I Still Suits Me,” written for the 1935 film version, a needed comic respite from all the misery.
And misery is one thing that sets “Show Boat” apart from its predecessors. Gambling, miscegenation, prejudice and desertion vie with loyalty, love and redemption in a melange of rounded characters and mixed motivations.
Gloom and doom are not only not shunned in this production, they’re celebrated. Even the usually buoyant “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” is here treated cynically, emphasizing “When once the curtain’s down, my life is pure, and how I dread it.” As sung by second banana Ellie, she doesn’t seem to be having any fun, and neither does anyone else.
Ruggiero, sensing the underlying seriousness of the Ferber novel that Hammerstein softened, stresses the tragic, although he tacks on an ending even more sentimental than the original. Accentuated is the mistreatment of blacks. When we get to the nightclub scene, for instance, Ruggiero inserts a sour black charwoman.
Dyspepsia aside, the music is glorious and gloriously sung by Ben Davis as the rake Gaylord Ravenal who’s in love with Sarah Uriarte Berry’s Magnolia. When they let go with “You Are Love” and “Only Make Believe,” the firmament twinkles.
David Aron Damane makes “Ol’ Man River” into a soaring, sonorous aria, while Andrea Frierson is a warm, empathetic Queenie. As Ellie and Frank, Jennifer Knox and Danny Gardner add vigor to generalized juvenile roles.
Lesli Margherita seems unsure how to handle Julie, the mulatto who’s forced to leave the Cotton Blossom when her background is discovered. Yet she’s musician enough to put across “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” and “Bill.” Karen Murphy is an acerbic Parthy, but, as her husband Captain Andy, Lenny Wolpe is caught between the character’s joviality and his duties.
Noah Racey’s choreography is shopworn and music director Michael Flaherty has to deal with too few instruments for such a lush score. Michael Schweikardt’s scenic design is wonderfully compact, John Lasiter lighting is moody and Amy Clark’s costumes, following the great Florence Klotz’s designs for Harold Prince’s spectacular 1994 production, are superb.
Two side notes: the original Magnolia was Norma Terris, after whom Goodspeed’s second theater is named. Also, from where I sat, I could see lots of unmasked backstage activity stage left: props carried, people waiting for cues. Norma would not have been happy, but she surely would cotton to a “Show Boat” revival. It’s a classic.