Review presented by UMB Private Wealth Management
Show Boat sits in a precarious position in the repertoire. It is undeniably a revolution in American theater, the first runaway success to use music to heighten the human drama of a well-written play. As MTH founder George Harter said in his opening remarks: In the history of musical theater, there is everything before Show Boat, and there is everything after. The successful marriage of musical comedy and drama, though, is not without lingering controversy. The depiction of African American characters is rather flat, and the written dialect is an incredibly uncomfortable caricature of the dialect of the black South. It doesn’t entirely hold up to scrutiny, but the fact that this piece opened the gates for the golden age of the Broadway musical has warranted many new staging and reproductions. It helps that many of the musical numbers are just so damn good.
Musical Theater Heritage (MTH) is presenting a stripped-down production of the venerated musical in a setting that isn’t quite a concert performance and not quite a fully staged production. In this adaptation, the cut drama is narrated and given context by Harter. The net result was a show about Show Boat rather than Show Boat itself.
In general, the second act has many more successes than the first. As much of the drama takes place in the Trocadero nightclub, the unadorned stage makes much more sense, and the onstage band, under the leadership of Gary Adams, is able to open up. They give an exhilarating reading of the entr’acte music with a rich sound during large ensemble numbers. In the more delicate songs, their soft playing isn’t helped by the dry acoustic of the room, and pitch often suffered in the winds.
The second act is propelled in no small part by Abigail Becker and Phil Newman (Ellie Mae and Frank Schultz) whose commitment to character pays off in spades. At this point in the story, the couple has made a career for themselves in the Chicago nightclub circuit, and they’re leveraging their notoriety to find work for the jilted Magnolia (played by Elise Poehling). In the most energetic sequences of the production, Newman and Gary Adams (briefly a character in the show) work with Magnolia to “rag up” her soulful reprise of Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.
A surprising success is Julie LaVerne’s (played by Morgan Walker) “Bill.” In the song, intended for the 1917 Kern-Wodehouse musical Oh, Lady! Lady!, the speaker wonders why she loves the less-than-perfect, titular Bill. It is clear in Show Boatthat the mixed-race Julie is thinking about her white former husband, Steve Baker. Walker began the song, rushing through the text and barely singing on discernable pitch, as if the embittered Julie didn’t have the patience for a rehearsal. Halfway through the song, Julie realizes she’s really singing about Steve, and Walker showed this by pulling back the tempo, delivering a beautiful and heartfelt ballad. It was an effective choice that showed the different faces trauma can adorn.
In the first act, the indictment of early 20th-century racial politics was defanged, possibly for the benefit of the almost exclusively white audience—an inconvenient fact that should be acknowledged. Robert McNichols (Joe) sang an attractive Ol’ Man River, although it was clear he didn’t really have the bottom for the role. Elise Poehling and Seth Jones (Gaylord Ravenal) flirted through a charming Only Make Believe. Nancy Nail (Parthy) and Enjoli Gavin (Queenie) provided well-timed comic relief.
In 2018, Show Boat offers time and space to reflect on where we have come from, how far we have come, and how much work is left to be done to rise above our racist heritage. We are reminded that although Jim Crow laws are officially off the books, the ignorance and hatred that originally enacted them is very much alive today. MTH gave a commendable effort scaling the work down but glossed over opportunities to overtly address its racist themes. The production is, however, propped up by some excellent singing in the cast.
Show Boat will show at Musical Theater Heritage through November 18th.
Wednesdays at 7 pm
Thursdays at 7 pm (select 1 pm matinees)
Fridays at 8 pm
Saturdays at 8 pm (select 2 pm matinees)
Sundays at 2pm