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BWW Reviews: SHOWBOAT - It keeps rollin' along

Gareth Keegan and Alinta Chidzey

Showboat is the second of the shows offered by the Production Company, with Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern's 1932 classic brought to life once more at Melbourne's State Theatre. Under the direction of Roger Hodgman the company presents an entertaining evening of nostalgic musical theatre. Those who are fans of the so called 'staples' of the musical theatre genre will no doubt revel in the opportunity to hear the many classic numbers from the show performed live once more. With several well known numbers in its play list, including Ol' Man River and Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man, there are numerous moments for pure musical theatre nostalgia.

Eddie Muliaumaseali'i plays the role of Joe and has the unenviable task of delivering the signature tune Ol' Man River. His rendition is enhanced by a chorus of four who bring out some beautiful sounding dimensions of the well-known song. Eddie seems well suited to the role of Joe and the chemistry between him and Heru Pinkasova (Queenie) seems well developed, especially as they deliver I Still Suits Me in the closing stages of the show. Their relationship, along with that of Captain Andy Hawks and Parthy Ann Hawks, is seemingly secure - moored together with the drifting tides unable to move them apart.

The contrast between the happy go lucky ever popular Captain (Philip Gould) and the conservative, somewhat moralistic Parthy Ann Hawks (Judith Roberts) is brought out well by the Gould and Roberts. At times they demonstrate that believable affinity of a couple married for several decades, each aware of the other's quirks and still remaining committed. In a show that ultimately emphasizes a relationship that went wrong, theirs are relationships that endure. At times you wonder how, since they possess seemingly opposed traits and personalities. Perhaps the answer is that luck - the role of the dice or the spin of the wheel - sees them still together. Whatever it may be, it is in stark contrast to the fate of Gaylord (played by Gareth Keegan) and Magnolia (played by Alinta Chidzey).

Eddie Muliaumaseali'i and chorus perform Ol' Man River

Gaylord and Magnolia are central to the story, with their plight twisting and turning like the river that winds through the land, their fate seemingly changing with each turn of the tide. Their initial infatuation at Natchez, where they sing the duet Only Make Believe, sets the tone for their ultimate destiny. While Parthy Ann Hawks refuses to believe the possibility of their coupledom it seems everyone else is swept up by the charm of Gaylord and Magnolia's besotted infatuation. Only Make Believe proved to be an apt introduction for the couple, with fate dealing them a turn of events that had their fortunes hanging on the spin of a wheel or the roll of a dice. Hope and chance would ultimately not be sufficient for the sustenance of the belief. Chidzey played the role of Magnolia well, reflecting the changing fortunes in a believable manner. From the childishly infatuated young girl who the audience first sees, as she is swept away by her newly met suitor, to the shaken women who realizes luck will not come her way, Chidzey conveys a defiant self belief and resilience that emerges from within a shell of uncertainty and shock. I suspect that Magnolia represents the greatest emotional swing of the characters, with this being well played out by Chidzey.

For me the casting was highlighted by the performance of Glenn Hill (Frank Schulz) and Nicole Melloy (Ellie May Chipley) who played this couple in a light hearted manner. While they are not necessarily the main roles in the show, they served to contrast some of the dark themes of the narrative and offered hope of an enduring relationship and loyalty when others around them were not so fortunate. That these roles were played in a manner that was comedic while also not trivializing the central plot came to the fore in the latter scenes, as the Schultz pairing emerge as key players in the ultimate resolution of the narrative. Glenn Hill was also afforded several stand-out colourful costumes that fitted the jesterly-like nature of his character.

Christina O'Neill

Christina O'Neill also offered a powerful performance as Julie Laverne. Her and Andrew Broadbent as Steve Baker present one of the more emotionally engaging couples in the show. While they may not appear in every scene, their impact on the show is such that they remain in your mind. They are also integral to the shaping of the destiny of other lead characters. The self sacrifice for others and inherent attitude of loyalty and rightness that they demonstrate is in stark contrast to the fundamentally racist environment that dominates the early scenes - an environment that sees Julie and Steve accused of miscegenation while the Cotton Blossom is docked in Natchez. Magnolia may not have had a lot going for her over the course of the story, but she can be thankful she had Julie Laverne on her side.

Glenn Hill and Nicole Melloy

It is worth pointing out that I have some reservations with Showboat as a story. These concerns are more with the structure of the underlying story than the execution offered by the Production Company. The following paragraphs represent observations on the narrative and character arcs, rather than the means of delivery, and should be interpreted in that context. From the outset the story did seem a little dated and slow in progression. Showboat is not a fast-paced engaging number and it seems there is not enough sustenance to keep peak attention levels for the full duration. It is a paddle steamer when we are now accustomed to speedboats. This dimension was ultimately highlighted by the concert-style presentation of the Production Company, which afforded little opportunity for indulgence in elaborate sets and props in order to placate the drifting narrative. In concert presentation mode the emphasis is squarely on the content.

Simple but effective is the best way to describe the sets, with projection extensively used to depict the façade of the Cotton Blossom. While various angles are used, the background is constant and effectively combined with a simple platform to give the impression of being on-deck versus being on land. Some token cotton bales litter the stage, serving as props in Cotton Blossom at the start of the show, but ultimately this is a concert performance. This is about the performers and the music, as opposed to elaborate sets and design gimmicks.

As Production Company regulars would expect, the orchestra was on the stage and fully visible. While this is a great opportunity to acknowledge the often unseen instrumentalists, there was sometimes a sense that the actors could not really fully act out their parts due to the real estate that is stage space being occupied by the orchestra. I wonder if the orchestra could have been on a raised platform that could have been incorporated into an upper deck of the showboat Cotton Blossom. That would have served the dual purpose of enhancing the depiction of the vessel and freeing up the stage for the performers.

This forced content-emphasis of the production is ultimately a double-edged sword. The most competent cast more than highlighted the beauty of several key numbers, aided by directorial interpretations that added impact to delivery. However the concert style also seemed to awkwardly point out the slow moving story. This was exacerbated in the final scenes with an abrupt and unsatisfactory ending that left the audience pondering the unresolved conflicts that still lingered, not to mention the obvious question of how a conflict that lasted over twenty years in the story could be resolved in a few bars of music with little explanation. Character arcs were abruptly reshaped in those final few scenes as twenty-eight years seemingly flew by in as many seconds. At first we were offered the indulgence of only making believe they were in love. By the end of the show it was hard to even do that about their apparent reconciliation.

Showboat is a dated piece that still offers some wonderful performances of numbers that have become musical theatre staples. For this alone it is worth the ticket price. It is a production that serves the Production Company well in terms of providing the opportunity to showcase what some see as a timeless musical being performed by a reasonably sized company of Australian stage talent. The talent make the most of the story they are given and deliver a most enjoyable theatrical experience.

: Saturday 16 August at 2pm and 7.30pm; Sunday 17 August at 3pm; Wednesday 20 August at 1pm and 7.30pm; Thursday 21 August at 7.30pm; Friday 22 August at 7.30pm; Saturday 23 August at 2pm and 7.30pm; Sunday 24 August at 3pm
WHERE: State Theatre, The Arts Centre, Melbourne
COST: A-Reserve: $119, $105 (Concession), $60 (Under 18's), $105 (Groups of 10+); B-Reserve: $84, $76 (Concession), $42 (Under 18's), $76 (Groups of 10+); C-Reserve: $48, $24 (Under 18's)

BOOKINGS: Through the Arts Centre or Ticketmaster

IMAGE CREDITS: Jeff Busby (2014), sourced from The Production Company Facebook page

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