Monday, November 30, 2009

'Show Boat' Weighs Anchor at Signature Theatre

This review of Signature Theatre's new production of Show Boat is scheduled to run in next Friday's edition of The Metro Herald in Alexandria, Virginia.

Signature Launches Show Boat
American Musical Theatre Classic in Fit Form in Arlington
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

It seems to be Edna Ferber’s year at Signature Theatre. Late last season, the company offered the world premiere of a new musical adaptation of Ferber’s Giant (Perennial Classics), with a score by Michael John LaChiusa. Signature is currently presenting the Kern-Hammerstein adaptation of Ferber’s 1926 novel, Show Boat. (If anyone at Signature is looking to musicalize Ferber’s Come and Get It, I know the president of the local historical society in Iron County, Wisconsin, the place where that book is set and where Ferber wrote it.) Like Giant, Show Boat has a sprawling story and only a couple of hours in which to tell it.

In his 1997 book, Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical From Show Boat to Sondheim, Geoffrey Block notes:

“By virtually any criteria, Show Boat marks a major milestone in the history of the American musical and has long since become the first Broadway show to be enshrined in the musical theater museum.”

A page or so later, Block adds:

“Beginning in the late 1960s historians would almost invariably emphasize Show Boat’s unprecedented integration of music and drama, its three-dimensional characters, and its bold and serious subject matter, including miscegenation and unhappy marriages.”

He also says that, “For the many who judge a show by how many songs they can hum or whistle when they leave (or enter) the theater, Show Boat offered ‘at least’ an unprecedented six song hits for the ages; moreover, nearly all of these songs according to [the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians], ‘are integral to the characterization and story.’”

It was no accident, one might conclude, that Ethan Mordden chose Make Believe as the title of his history of the Broadway musical in the 1920s, also published in 1997 and part of his multi-volume chronicle of Broadway through the 20th century, since “Make Believe” is perhaps the biggest of the hit songs from Show Boat, in addition to such (now) standards as “Bill,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” and the sonorous, haunting “Ol’ Man River.”

Mordden writes of the show’s opening on Broadway almost exactly 82 years ago, just a few weeks after it had had its first tryout at the National Theatre here in Washington:

“The piece opened at the Ziegfeld on December 27, 1927, to almost unanimous acclaim as the Awesome Musical. ‘A work of genius,’ Robert Coleman called it in the Daily Mirror. It ‘shows that managers have not until now realized the tremendous possibilities of the musical comedy as an art form.’ Variety’s Abel Green, while praising the work, completely misunderstood its revolutionary nature: ‘Meaty and gripping, rich with plot and character, it’s almost a pity that the novel wasn’t dramatized “straight,” sans the musical setting.” Is he kidding? The point isn’t that the subject was too busy for a musical but that musicals had been getting by on thin subject matter. Show Boat was a wake-up call.”

Mordden and Block both describe the many (per)mutations of Show Boat, from its first revivals, in 1931 and 1946, through its three movie versions (1929, 1936, and 1951), through its most recent major recording and revival (by EMI and Hal Prince, respectively, in both cases trying to be “definitive”).

This all brings us to the Signature Theatre in Arlington, where artistic director Eric Schaeffer has directed a slimmed-down yet tonally ambitious revival that incorporates some but not all of the additions that date to the discovery, in the late 1970s, of musical numbers and scenes that had been dropped from the original Broadway production and were not used until the Houston Grand Opera’s 1983 groundbreaker.

Schaeffer has assembled a cast of actors who are almost uniquely suited to the roles they play. Will Gartshore was born to play Gaylord Ravenal, a man of questionable virtue but unquestionable charm. Harry A. Winter must have been waiting years for a chance to play Cap’n Andy and his tour-de-force set piece toward the end of Act One, when he gets to play all the parts in “The Village Drunkard,” a play-within-a-play. And could Terry Burrell have asked for a better opportunity than to play Julie, the mulatto whose life is ruined by the race-based legal structure of the Deep South?

Burrell rapturously captures the soul of Julie in her stunning rendition of “Bill,” the song made famous by Helen Morgan in the original Show Boat cast. Burrell starts the song with indifference – singing it is just a job for her – but adds layer upon layer of despair and irony as the number continues. By the time she is finished, both she and the audience are emotionally twisted. That she then sacrifices herself, quietly and anonymously helping her old friend, Magnolia, adds even more weight to the moment.

After so much time since it first opened, the story of Show Boat is well-known. Edna Ferber’s novel spanned more than five decades of American history with a focus on one family and the people they knew. On the surface, it is the story of Magnolia (Stephanie Waters), the daughter of Cap’n Andy and Parthy (Kimberly Schraf), and her husband, Gaylord Ravenal. This summary, however, sells Show Boat short. Mordden explains:

“This magnificent omnium-gatherum is – or was – a kind of container of everything that American show biz thought important in 1927. It was story-vaudeville, the comic operetta, the musical comedy. It’s not a tragedy, it’s a backstager. And it’s not Magnolia’s story; it’s America’s.”

Yet after more than eight decades, Show Boat still exercises power in its portrayal of racial prejudice and the “separate-but-equal” mentality that ruled during the 1880s through the 1920s, the period the show takes place. Joe (VaShawn McIlwain) sings, “Ol’ Man River,” the musical glue that holds the show together, with a somberness and vibrato that emphasize the burden that he and the other “colored folk” (as the modernized lyric has it – the original used a more degrading epithet that begins with “N”) must bear while “the white folk play.”

Show Boat is a kind of Russian nesting doll of musical Americana. Jerome Kern’s music is a compilation of operetta, ragtime, “coon songs” (or minstrelsy), jazz, and what we would now call Broadway standards. There are ballads, love songs, dance numbers, and comic turns. Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics – keep in mind, he was just 28 years old when he wrote and directed Show Boat – nestle snugly with the musical shape that Kern gives the piece.

(There is a story told, perhaps apocryphal, that at a stuffy New York cocktail party sometime in the 1940s, Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein overheard someone say that “Jerome Kern wrote ‘Ol’ Man River.’” She interrupted and stated, perhaps a bit too haughtily, “Jerome Kern did not write ‘Ol’ Man River’; he wrote ‘da-da-DA-dum.’ My husband wrote ‘ol’ man river’!”)

Schaeffer wisely compresses some of the action in the second act (he drops, as Hammerstein did in 1927, “It’s Getting Hotter in the North,” a number for Gaylord and Magnolia’s daughter, Kim) to bring us to a conclusion that has always seemed a bit contrived: the reunion of Magnolia and Gaylord after 23 years of separation. (Ferber avoided this contrivance by killing Gaylord off before the book’s end.) Still, the raw sentimentality of this moment cannot be denied, and Schaeffer helps us hurry toward it.

Throughout the show, Schaeffer balances the melodramatic with the comic, the dramatic with the musical. Rapid scene changes, projections to let us know when and where the action is taking place, and a bare minimum of props and furniture – all keep the show moving so that when thing slow down, it is for a purpose, and all just so.

Even if one finds Show Boat’s libretto a bit creaky and, as noted above, contrived, the music alone is worth a visit to Signature Theatre. Not only the principals – I left out Bobby Smith and Sandy Bainum as Frank and Ellie, and Delores King Williams, whose Queenie’s stability holds the Show Boat family together despite rocky shoals along that river – but the chorus and orchestra bring (pardon the pun) just the right notes to the evening’s entertainment.

Show Boat continues its run through January 17, 2010. Take advantage of the opportunity to see an American classic on stage.

Show Boat, music by Jerome Kern, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the novel by Edna Ferber, runs through January 17, 2010, in The MAX at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, Virginia 22206. No performances on December 25 or January 1. Show times are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Added performances on Monday, December 21, at 7:30 p.m. and Monday, December 28, at 7:30 p.m. Ticket prices range from $52 to $76 and are available through Ticketmaster at 703-573-7328 or visiting

Production photos courtesy of Signature Theatre; photo credit: Chris Mueller.

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