BWW Reviews: Goodspeed Musicals Sets Sail with a Triumphant SHOW BOAT
Music by Jerome Kern
Book & Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein
Based on the novel by Edna Ferber
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam through September 17
When riverboats like the Cotton Blossom brought entertainment to the Mississippi River towns, a buzz would tear through the community signaling that something special was happening, something not to be missed. The spectacle of actors, dancers and singers performing on a floating pleasure palace was an exciting diversion from the humdrum reality of life on the river. I'm delighted to report that there is reason once again to get excited and hustle yourself down to see the Cotton Blossom docked on the riverbank, this time in East Haddam, CT. Goodspeed Musical's delicious revival of the Kern-Hammerstein landmark musical Show Boat proves that you can revisit and rethink a classic in a way that honors the original.
Much of the credit for this stellar production goes to director Rob Ruggiero. Relatively few directors in Connecticut can move with such fluid ease from comedy to drama to musical. Ruggiero is the total package and Show Boat teases out his finest qualities as a director with tense drama, beautiful song and dance, and laughter aplenty. Why a major regional theatre does not smarten up and hire this man as an Artistic Director is beyond comprehension as he is among the most consistent helmsmen routinely directing across the country.
Ruggiero's contributions to this production extend beyond the routine tasks of the director. He has also worked closely with the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization to shrink and tighten the legendary 1927 musical to a manageable size for the tiny Goodspeed stage and length for modern audiences prone to fidgeting from cellphone withdrawal after 2-and-a-half hours. With huge cast requirements, challenging set demands that call for a full-sized show boat and the Chicago World's Fair, and a 3-hour running time, previous productions have bordered on "show bloat." How was Ruggiero granted permission to fiddle with a classic, especially with the approval of the usually ultra-protective R&H Organization? Because, since 1927, there has been no one definitive version of the piece. With many different stage versions and three films, there are a number of sources from which to draw as the piece was written and re-written. Ruggiero wisely focuses on the intimate family drama at the heart of the spectacle and therein succeeds in creating a heartfelt and emotional Show Boat.
In a pre-production interview, Ruggiero was cagey as to how he was going to pull off the feat of putting a show boat on the Goodspeed's tiny stage. He said there would be a moment when the boat arrives, but wouldn't say how. The 1927 version was produced by Florenz Ziegfield, so one knows they did not skimp on the set. The 1994 Hal Prince version of Show Boat indulged the play's large-scale conceits with a near full-sized show boat pulling on and off stage. Ruggiero's version pulls up to the dock with the lifting of a scrim (not quite as dramatic an entrance as I had hoped), but the effect is stunning nonetheless. In terms of the Goodspeed, the set is enormous and clever in its use of space. Its design, created by Michael Schweikardt, seems almost inspired by the interior front lobby of the Goodspeed itself with its grand sweeping staircases and balustrade. The historic hall in which the show is staged adds to the Victorian splendor of the production and is the perfect backdrop , making the Goodspeed audience the Cotton Blossom's audience. Accordingly, Ruggiero uses the hall and balconies as playing space for the characters. To take on the other locations in the show, the show boat stairs retract and various drops and sliders appear and disappear to whisk us to other locations.
The casting for the production is spot-on with nary a misstep in the lot. As the affable Captain Andy Hawks, Lenny Wolpe has a winning smile, a strong voice and a way with comedy. His starchy wife Parthy is played for maximum sourpuss affectation by Karen Murphy. Their daughter, Magnolia, is portrayed by the transcendent Sarah Uriarte Berry, with just the right mix of innocence in Act 1 and world-weariness in Act 2. The "no-account" river gambler Gaylord Ravenal is embodied with the perfect blend of dash and desperation by Ben Davis. His booming tenor sails out over the house and blends perfectly with Berry in their duet "You Are Love." Lesli Margherita delivers as Julie, blending musical theatre with the blues in "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and "Bill," her Act 2 showstopper.
Danny Gardner's fast-footed tapper and the show boat's resident stage villain Frank is a goofy delight. Jennifer Knox matches him in humor and talent, as the ship's woebegotten second-banana Ellie. As Queenie, the ship's cook, Andrea Frearson is a sassy and well-sung treasure. Rounding out the principle roles, David Aron Damane anchors the show with his imposing physical presence and a basso profundo that gives the show's most famous tune, "Ol' Man River," the gravitas that it requires. The production features a sizable ensemble that plays everything from cotton-slinging dock workers, sheriffs, showgirls and tuxedoed revelers.
Show Boat's score is essentially faultless, all the more remarkable that with the creation of the show, Kern and Hammerstein were essentially creating musical theatre as an art form. All of the classics are included, with the exception of Act 1's "Queenie's Ballyhoo," an unfortunate excising. The 1994 revival included a sweet moment for Parthy to sing "Why Do I Love You?" to her newborn granddaughter, offering the character a moment to show something other than exasperation and frustration with her husband and daughter. I'm not sure if that was in the original production, but its humanizing effect on Parthy is somewhat missed here. A nice addition is the song "Ah Still Suits Me." Not utilized in the 1994 revival and written specifically for the 1936 film, the duet between Queenie and Joe adds depth and humor to their relationship. Other nips and tucks have been made to shorten the length of the piece. The show boat-to-Chicago sequence at the top of Act 2 has been truncated by Ruggiero to give a whirlwind overview of Magnolia and Ravenal's life as newlyweds and parents. The Act 1 arrival of two hayseeds with rifles fixin' to see a show fails to pay off as their gun-toting disruption of the show has been removed. Note to Ruggiero: do not forget Chekhov's maxim, ""One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it."
Along with the aforementioned set, all of the design elements, choreography and musical direction deserve high praise and are among the finest I have seen and heard on Goodspeed's stage. In fact, this is the finest production I have seen mounted by this Tony Award-winning company. Usually specializing in lighter-than-air musical theatre without a thought in its head, it is wonderful to watch the company rise to the undertaking of Show Boat and challenge its audience with the play's racial issues, flawed characters and ambiguous ending. Generally shunting its challenging work to the company's Second Stage, The Norma Terris Theatre in Chester (named after the woman who created the role of Magnolia in 1927), Goodspeed tackles the mother of all musicals on its main stage in East Haddam without compromising its epic scope and intimate storytelling. Bravo, bravo, bravo.
Photo by Diane Sobolewski.