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BWW Review: Book Passage on Fiddlehead's SHOW BOAT

Show Boat

Music by Jerome Kern, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Based on the novel Show Boat by Edna Ferber; Co-Directors, Meg Fofonoff and Stacey Stephens; Music Director, Charles Peltz; Choreographer, Wendy Hall; Scenic Designer, Paul Tate DePoo III; Costume Designer, Stacey Stephens; Lighting Designer, Zach Blane; Sound Designer, Brian McCoy; Projections Designer, Kevan Loney; Makeup Designer, Joe Dulude II; Production Manager, Daryl Pauley; Stage Manager, Alycia Marucci

CAST (in order of appearance): Kathy St. George, Bryan Miner, Lindsay Roberts, Chris Pittman, Dawn Tucker, Richard Gabriel Wayne, John Davin, Lindsay Sutton, Carl-Michael Ogle, Sarah Hanlon, Jeremiah James, Chris Adam King, Kim Corbett, Brian Kinnard, Addie Swan, Megan Yates; The Show Boat Ensemble: Jennifer Arnold, Lauren Bell, Lindsay Bell, Krystal Bly, Ashley Burroughs, Valeskas Cambron, Shonna Cirone, Sarita Crawford, Arthur Cuadros, Dan Faber, Rasmiyyah Feliciano, Sam Forgie, Brian Michael Henry, Sheldon Henry, Collin L. Howard, Dion Montez Jarret, Allyson Lynch, Alison Mahoney, Ryan Malyar, Taylor Hilt Mitchell, Yewande Odetoyinbo, Christina Pecce, Justin Raymond Reeves, Dougie Robbins, Manuel Sandrige, Roslyn Seale, George Slotin, Tinaiya Tank, Ryan Gregory Thurman, Miguel Vasquez, Kelton Washington, Alexa Cohen, Jackson Daley, Brendan O'Brien

Performances through July 3 by Fiddlehead Theatre Company at Citi Performing Arts Center Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 866-348-9738 or www.citicenter.org

In 1927, Show Boat opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre on Broadway and changed the course of American musical theater. The first fully integrated book musical, it took on serious topics while honestly portraying the everyday problems of its characters, both African American and white. From the vantage point of nearly a century later, the conventions of that time are quaint, at best, or may rankle a modern audience, and much of what occurs in the libretto is predictable, but Oscar Hammerstein II (Book/Lyrics) begins an attack on racial prejudice that surfaces with greater refinement in South Pacific, and Jerome Kern's score is overstuffed with memorable musical numbers.

Fiddlehead Theatre Company inaugurates its partnership with Citi Performing Arts Center Shubert Theatre with a lavish, spectacular production of Show Boat, co-directed by Founding Producing Artistic Director Meg Fofonoff and Associate Producing Artistic Director Stacey Stephens. A sampling of the numbers provided in the Fiddlehead press materials is astounding: 50 cast members, 27-piece orchestra, and 300 period costumes. Stephens doubled as costume designer (one wonders how he had any time left to direct) and it is not hyperbole to describe his work as among the best I have seen on a local stage. At least half of the cast are members of Actors' Equity, and the ensemble is comprised of polished triple-threat performers, right down to a quartet of children. Music Director Charles Peltz produces full, rich sounds from the Shubert's orchestra pit that conjure memories of the good old days when dozens of players routinely accompanied musicals.

Based on Edna Ferber's best-selling novel with the same title, Show Boat follows three generations of the Hawks family on The Cotton Blossom river boat from 1887-1927. Gregarious showman Cap'n Andy Hawks (John Davin) and his persnickety wife Parthy Ann (Dawn Tucker) juggle running the boat and the show, while also properly raising their daughter Magnolia (Kim Corbett) and trying to keep relations smooth among all The Players. Their star-crossed stars who harbor a secret are the married couple Steve Baker (Bryan Miner) and Julie LaVerne (Sarah Hanlon), the latter idolized by Magnolia, and a comic dance team of second bananas, Ellie May Chipley (Lindsay Sutton) and Frank Schultz (Carl-Michael Ogle). Queenie (Lindsay Roberts) and Joe (Brian Kinnard) head up the African American gals and stevedores who do all the heavy lifting that keeps the show boat afloat. River rogue Gaylord Ravenal (Jeremiah James) happens to be in the right place at the right time to join the troupe and capture Magnolia's heart.

The plot is melodramatic and the directors have made the choice to have the actors employ a style of delivery that emphasizes that feature. The effect is that it feels like a play within a play, the actors playing characters playing roles, and keeping them at some distance from the heart of the characters. With a few exceptions, it was difficult to care about them. The burden sits most heavily on Corbett, James, and Hanlon. Sutton and Schultz are zany and likable, and Roberts and Kinnard are authentic. Parthy is a stereotypical shrew, but Tucker cracks her exterior just enough to let us see what drives her. Davin's portrayal has almost enough humanity to make up for anyone who's lacking, and his Cap'n Andy is a star turn.

The problem lies with the book scenes, but the musical numbers are triumphant. The principals and the ensemble all have beautiful voices, and Kinnard's "Ol' Man River" is sure to induce goose bumps. The hit parade includes "Only Make Believe," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "Life Upon the Wicked Stage," "Why Do I Love You," "Bill," and "You Are Love." Wendy Hall's choreography is creative, eclectic, and performed with style and precision, with a few of the highlights being "Queenie's Ballyhoo," "The Wedding" (Act I Finale), and "Kim's Charleston."

Speaking of Kim, she is the daughter of Magnolia and Ravenal who is portrayed at three ages by Addie Swan (circa 1899), Megan Yates (circa 1927), and Kathy St. George (circa 1954). Swan has good stage presence and never looks like she's acting. As the young adult Kim following in her mother's performing footsteps, Yates is a ball of fire and she really nails that Charleston. St. George is onstage for the entire show without any lines; rather, she sits on the side paging through a scrapbook and watching the story play out as if Kim is reminiscing. It is an unusual conceit (apparently crafted just for this production) that presents an acting challenge, but St. George is thoroughly engaged with everything that goes on and conveys a world of emotions wordlessly.

Scenic designer Paul Tate DePoo III, projections designer Kevan Loney, and lighting designer Zach Blane collaborate to create the world of the play, from the two-story, scrolled ironwork river boat, to the buildings in Chicago, to the Trocadero night club. Brian McCoy's sound design brings clarity in the speaking scenes, as well as effective balance between the singers and the orchestra. Fofonoff and Stephens deserve credit for assembling this accomplished team capable of transferring their vision to the stage. It is an incredible artistic achievement. Book passage on this Show Boat - it sails away on July 3rd.

Photo credit: Eric Antoniou (Lindsay Sutton, Carl-Michael Ogle, and Ensemble)



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From This Author Nancy Grossman