Reviewed by Tony Annicone
The second show of Reagle Music Theatre’s 49th summer season is the Goodspeed Musicals version of “Showboat” which combined the talents of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. The original version opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre on December 27, 1927 and ran for 572 performances. Kern and Hammerstein felt that the Broadway musical theatre was suffering from a lack of depth and wanted to steer away from the fluffy musical comedies and melodramatic operettas it was accustomed to.
They chose Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel on life on the Mississippi River which dealt with unhappy marriages, miscegenation and racial prejudice.
The story begins in 1887 and spans 50 years, dealing with the fortunes of an impressionable young woman named Magnolia Hawks, her father Captain Andy who owns a showboat called Cotton Blossom and a troubled riverboat gambler/actor named Gaylord Ravenal. Magnolia and Gaylord fall in love while acting on the showboat, eventually marry and move to Chicago. There are several subplots in the show including the repression of and the nobility of the black characters and their exclusion due to the turn of the century social and racial prejudice against them and especially against Magnolia’s mulatto friend, the tragic Julie Laverne.
Director/choreographer Rachel Bertone casts superb performers in these iconic roles while musical director Dan Rodriguez taught them the intricate harmonies that soar throughout the theatre. Rachel captures all the poignant and comic moments together splendidly. She gives the audience a chance to laugh one minute and move them to tears the next. It demonstrates what a well performed musical should be. Since there is so much tragedy in the show, Harold Prince kept the happy ending of Magnolia and Gaylord reuniting at the close of the show which brings more tears to the audiences eyes. What a perfect ending to this breathtaking musical extravaganza.
Rachel blocks the show splendidly, creating many picture postcard moments along the way. The entire first act takes place on, at or near the Cotton Blossom Showboat. The showboat is also used by the character of Joe to comment on no matter what else is happening in the country, the Mississippi just keeps rolling along as he belts out “Old Man River.” The second act takes place in and around Chicago. Dan does a fantastic job making the cast and orchestra blend together like a Broadway show. His keen eye for harmonic balance between the vocalists and instrumentalists are astounding. Rachel’s many dance numbers include the cake walk, the polka, the Charleston, the jitterbug, and many others which the cast executes excellently. She next tackles “Gypsy” for Lyric Stage in September. The massive amounts of gorgeous costumes are by Amy Clark and Florence Klotz for Goodspeed Musicals while the fabulous sets are by Michael Micucci.
The gorgeous Sarah Oakes Muirhead captures the innocence of Magnolia at the start of the show and smoothly makes the transition to the older more mature woman at the close of it. I last reviewed her as Hodel in “Fiddler on the Roof” last December and was one of the shining stars of that show, too. She is superb in this role as her majestic soprano voice soars off the charts in her duets including my favorite “Make Believe”, where she and Ravenal pretend they are in love, “You Are Love”, when they actually fall in love, “Why Do I Love You?”, after she gives birth to Kim and “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” reprise where as a mature woman changes the tempo of the song to a flapper style of the 1920’s. Sarah interacts beautifully with the other performers especially the warmth she feels toward Julie and her antipathy to her hard shelled mother, Parthy who comes around near the end of the show due to her love for her granddaughter. Sarah also has a lot of chemistry with her leading man, Ciaran Sheehan as Ravenal. He has a magnificent tenor voice which I first heard last year when he played Billy in “Carousel” which Rachel also directed. Ciaran’s upper register is breathtaking and is a dashing rogue in this role. Gaylord captures the heart of this young woman by wooing her with “Make Believe” and reels her in with “You Are Love” and rejoices in the birth of their daughter in “Why Do I Love You?”. Ciaran also sings the gambling song “Till Luck Comes My Way” with the men but also moves the audience to tears with “Make Believe” reprise when he realizes he must leave his young daughter, Kim played wonderfully by Georgia Buendia and he moves them again in “You Are Love” in 1927 when you think he missed his chance of seeing Magnolia again. Ciaran and Sarah tug at your heartstrings at the end of the show when Gaylord and Magnolia reunite after a long separation.
The show stopping song of this musical is “Old Man River” sung brilliantly by Michel Bell as Joe. His magnificent bass voice sends chills up your spine as the applause from the audience stops the show in its tracks. The other men join in on the reprise of the song with gorgeous three part harmony. Michel and Yewande as Queenie, also capture the dignity of the characters and their dedication to the showboat. They also sing a comic song in called “I Still Suits Me” where they show their love for each other after all these years. Yewande O. Odetoyinbo displays her powerhouse voice in “Can’t Help Lovin That Man” when it turns into a strong dancing segment. Another chilling and powerful number cut from the original show and the movie versions is “Misery’s Coming Around” which starts as a solo for Yewande and builds escalating into a haunting gospel melody. Dani Wrenn plays the tragic, Julie. She sings the soulful “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” which turns into a big song and dance number as well as in her second act song “Bill”. Julie is betrayed by an evil cad, Pete who tells the sheriff that Julie is a mulatto married to a white man which was a crime in Mississippi. Chris Scott plays Julie’s husband, Steve who heroically stands by her and defends her against the charge of miscegenation, leaving town with her. Anthony Gervais portrays the role of the smarmy Pete to the hilt while Todd Yard plays the righteous sheriff who tries to arrest Ravenal and runs Julie and Steve off the showboat.
The massive role of Captain Andy is excellently played by Rick Sherburne. He brings this curmudgeon to life with his strong acting ability. Rick handles many comic moments including some comments about Parthy but also has a tender moment with Magnolia in “After the Ball” scene. He recently played the warm hearted Jacob in “Joseph” in June. His shrewish wife, Parthy is played by the scene stealing Susan Scannell who excels in this role of the harridan who never stops complaining until 1927 when she finally lets her hair down becomes a flapper.
Parthy does have a brief respite from her bitchy ways at the start of Act 2 when she cuddles the baby which is a very sentimental thing for Parthy to do. Two other comic performers are Kevin Patrick Martin and Joy Clark as Frank and Ellie Schultz. They do fabulous work in their roles, playing the dance team who constantly squabbles with each other but eventually end up married. Joy is a hoot as the comedienne who wants to play the leading lady but overacts on purpose. Her song and dance number is “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” with the girls and her duet with Kevin is “Goodbye My Lady Love”, a show stopping song and dance. Kudos to the sensational and exuberant singing and dancing chorus members, too.
This is a topnotch rendition of this classic musical, be sure to catch “Showboat” at Reagle Music Theatre before it sails away for good. Tell them Tony sent you.
SHOWBOAT (6 to 16 July)
Reagle Music Theatre, Robinson Theatre, 617 Lexington Ave, Waltham, MA
1(617)891-5600 or www.reaglemusictheatre.org