Sunday, August 14, 2011

Show Boat

SHOWBOAT, the first musical play, sails courtesy of Mercury Summerstock

Pierre-Jacques Brault, Artistic Director of Mercury Summerstock, is not known for thinking small. He confronts projects that other theatre producers wouldn’t even think of undertaking. No matter that he is working on a shoestring budget, is using a tiny stage, and his company consists of one professional actor and a small group of dedicated performers. Brault “just keeps rolling along,” ignoring the odds.

SHOWBOAT is a musical with music by Jerome Kern and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. It was based on Edna Ferber’s novel of the same name.

SHOWBOAT is one of the most important musicals ever written. It was responsible for the transition of the American musical theatre from simple minded operettas, follies, musical revues and shows that featured vaudeville acts. It was not, as OKLAHOMA would be some years later, a true, well-integrated musical in which all the elements—story, songs and dancing—blended together in a way that one was totally dependent on the other, but it laid down the path to be followed. It ushered in a new genre for the theatre, the musical play.

The plot chronicles the lives of those living and working on the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi River show boat, from 1880 to 1927. Like so many of the Hammerstein stories to follow, the show's dominant theme is social justice. In this case, racial prejudice. And it ushered in another Hammerstein theme, that of tragic and enduring love. (Think CAROUSEL.)

Kern’s libretto is exceptional, especially considering the era from which it comes. Classic songs include Make Believe, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine, Life Upon the Wicked Stage, You Are Love, Why Do I Love You? and After the Ball.

The Mercury cast, especially the African American performers and chorus, are outstanding. Brain Keith Johnson’s version and reprises of Old Man River brought extended cheers. Kelvette Beacham (Queenie) was a total delight presenting Queenie’s Bally-Hoo and Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’.

Brian Marshall has the handsome looks needed for Gaylord Ravenal the river gambler who wins the heart of Magnolia, the daughter of the riverboat’s owners. He used his excellent singing voice well, but for some reason kept switching accents (e.g., Southern, Irish, general American) and started out playing the role as a caricature and then switched to realism.

Jennifer Myor (Magnolia) has a lovely voice and nice stage presence. Maria Thomas Lister, as the mixed race Julie, sang her role well, but never got below the surface in developing a characterization.

Hester Lewellen was a fine, stiff-backed Parthy, Magnolia’s mother. Mark Seven feigned facial and line stereotypes as Captain Andy. Kaitlyn Dessoffy made for a lovely Kim, Magnolia’s daughter. She has a nice stage presence and fine vocal abilities.

Ryan Neal’s musical direction brought a good sound from his limited sized orchestra, but needed to inspire volume control when underscoring speaking scenes.

Brault’s staging was impressive, especially considering that the show is usually done with numerous massive sets, a huge cast, lots of period costumes and a full orchestra.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: SHOWBOAT is a big, important script that is seldom performed because of the cost and staging necessities. It gets a very acceptable production at Mercury. It’s worth going just to hear Brain Keith Johnson curl your toenails as he sings Old Man River.