Show Boat at Signature Theater

Terry Burrell as Julie, Delores King Williams as Queenie, and Stephanie Waters as Magnolia in Signature Theatre’s production of Show Boat, running through January 17, http://www.signature-theatre.org.

Show Boat starts on the Mississippi in the 1880s, following the exploits of Cap’n Andy and his Show Boat troupe.  Act I concentrates on the courtship of his daughter Magnolia with the wayward but charming Gaylord Ravenal.  Act II shows the dissolution of that marriage and Magnolia’s rise to stardom, and her daughter Kim’s present day (circa 1927) success.  On the way we have detours for miscegenation, the Chicago’s World Fair, desertion, and every variety of show-within-a-show performance.

Legend has it that when Show Boat played its first preview at the National Theater in 1927, it ran four and a half hours.  So seeing how the creative team shapes the available material into a cohesive narrative has been part of what makes this show interesting from day one.  (Actually day two)

Over the river and 82 years later, Signature Theater has mounted a Show Boat directed by Eric Shaeffer that strives to present an intimate version of the epic with reduced cast and trimmed script in a black-box space.  The intimate production of the musical presents some really lovely moments.  Favorites include:

  • Terry Burrell’s performance of Bill is the best I’ve ever seen the song.  Plot-wise, her character is shown rehearsing the number and Burrell’s performance takes her character as she marks the song, starts performing it, starts feeling it, and then finishes in rehearsal mode again.
  • We really get drawn into the characters as they’re singing, bringing a level of intimacy to the Kern/Hammerstein songs, especially the ballads, that give them a special freshness.
  • In the play-within-a-play scene, we really get to see the details of Harry Winter’s hysterical performance as Cap’n Andy tells the audience what they would have seen had the show gone according to plan.  (BTW, Kimberly Schraf is by far the most three dimensional Parthy I’ve seen)
  • Helen Hedman’s reading of the ironic Old Lady on the dock at the end gains more weight and wistful humor.

The main victims of this more intimate approach, unsurprisingly, are the moments where the piece trades on spectacle.  Interestingly, the lack of spectacle doesn’t come from the smaller space, but from the reduced population available to fill that space.  And as brilliant a character actor as J. Fred Schiffman is, he felt a little over-taxed in the need to come up with four+ different characters.  Another problem with the more intimate approach came with the Julie-passing-as-white storyline.  Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but it felt like a lot of people along the Mississippi needed to get their eyes checked if they all thought she was purely Anglo.

 Another problem with the production that had nothing to do with its scale was the lack of chemistry between Gaylord and Magnolia.  This is a show that relies on literal love at first sight, and the characters do not generate that moment that the relationship needs in order to make sense.  Will Gartshore does bringt an appropriate level of unctuousness to Gaylord Ravenal, but Stephanie Waters (who comes across as a very mature 18 in the first act) seems much too sensible to have anything to do with him, making the relationship seem a bit baffling.  

But despite these reservations, I can’t stress how cool it is to see this great classic in the intimate space.  The clarity of the storytelling and the terrific singing create a you-are-there feeling for one of the great works in the American Musical Theater cannon.

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