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A Superb and Relevant Show Boat at WBT

|by Morey Storck|

showboatP.28When Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein I asked Florenz Ziegfeld to produce their new Broadway musical, based on Edna Ferber’s novel, he was immediately impressed and agreed to mount the elaborate production. “This is the best ‘musical comedy’ I have ever been fortunate to get hold of. I am thrilled to produce it. This show is the opportunity of my life.”

Ziegfeld was probably also unaware that the musical would stun and completely alter the Broadway musical landscape, surprising an audience who expected his trademark of extravagantly mounted and beautifully feathered revues but who witnessed a vehicle of social significance. It was scheduled to open the new Ziegfeld Theatre in early February 1927, but because of the many revisions and re-writes, it was delayed. Ironically, the musical Rio Rita, with a book written by Guy Bolton, one of Kern’s and Hammerstein’s prior collaborators, was the replacement.

On December 27, 1927, the musical finally opened at the Ziegfeld. It was billed, incorrectly, as “An All-American Musical Comedy.” However, it did not seem to excite the audience, and throughout the evening the presentation met with limited applause. But, on the following morning there were long lines at the box office waiting to buy tickets. The New York Times wrote: “Excellent…perilously close to being the best New York has seen…an exceptionally tuneful score…every ingredient that the perfect musical should have.” Obviously, the critics had gotten the message. The audience had come to see a musical comedy but was served something quite different. That very different show was Show Boat, arguably the most profound, effective and influential work in the history of the American musical theater. It ran for 572 performances, quite a long run for that time. “Ol Man River,” “Only Make Believe,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Why Do I Love You?” and “Bill” have become classics and are frequently included in concert and cabaret perforrmances.

More than an evolution, Show Boat was a revolution in book, song, direction and message. It brought to life, in music and dance, subject material that never before had been treated with such objective truth, strong dialogue and lyrics and authenticity. Introducing forbidden love, racial inequality and miscegenation, all topics never-before dealt with in musical theatre, the show’s book is paramount, yet all elements are integrated seamlessly into the story-line.

Spanning the years from 1880 – 1927, the show tells the story of three generations in the life of one family living aboard the Cotton Blossom, one of the many show boats that sailed up and down the Mississippi River offering gambling and theater entertainment. The scenario centers around the rather sheltered Magnolia Hawks, her father Cap’n Andy, who owns the show boat Cotton Blossom, a riverboat gambler named Gaylord Ravenal, and Julie Laverne, a person of mixed race and Magnolia’s tragic best friend. Plus “Ol’ Man River” itself – the Mississippi, seemingly a part of the cast, and a continuing presence throughout the show.

In this production, “Ol’ Man River” is sung by Michael James Leslie to a spontaneous standing ovation, certainly a rare occurrence in the middle of an act! It is sung with strength and authority, in a measured style and narrative all his own. (It was originally written for Paul Robeson, but he was unable to perform it at its premiere.)

John Preator and Bonnie Fraser as Gaylord Ravenal and Magnolia Hawks respectively, are beautifully paired singing “Only Make Believe,” “You Are Love,” and “Why Do I Love You,” during painful periods of love, marriage, and reconciliation. Their lovely light operetta voices blend perfectly.

Sarah Hanlon, as Julie Laverne, has a very emotional and pivotal role to play, informed by a deep secret she must keep hidden. “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” is sung plaintively at first, but rebounds later with pep. However, it provides the first hint to uncovering Julie’s secret. “Bill” is probably the most well-known song in the show, with the exception of “Ol Man River,” and though drunk and despondent, Sarah sings it tenderly and with understanding.

Amanda Pulcini, as Ellie May Chiply, sings “Life Upon The Wicked Stage,” a light-hearted tune, that she delivers with the broad comic strokes and eye-wink wisdom needed. A definite crowd pleaser. And, Jamie Ross as Captain Andy Hawks, the lovable put-upon crisis solver is entirely plausible and well-acted.

Applause is due for the costumes and sets designed by Michael Bottari and Ron Case – and particularly to Richard Stafford for his spot-on direction and period choreography. Go! You will definitely enjoy Show Boat.

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