Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Show Boat began life as a huge Florenz Ziegfeld production with a cast of 75 in 1927. Because of the times, book writer Oscar Hammerstein II made choices that he probably wouldn't have made in later years. The show has had many productions, several while the writers were still alive, and they made changes for each of them, adding and cutting songs, making minor changes in the book. Therefore, no one version is clearly what the writers intended. John McGlinn conducted a brilliant studio recording in 1989 which attempted to recreate what was heard by the opening night audience in 1927. All other musical additions after that time are contained in an hour-long appendage at the end of the 3-1/2 hour plus recording. Using McGlinn as a starting point, it will still be necessary for any modern producer to make some hard choices about the piece. Purist that I am, I believe that the closer you can stay to the very original version the better.
The production being presented by Asolo Rep is based on a "chamber version" first done two years ago at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut with the same director and choreographer but an entirely different cast. A cast of 25 is pretty good sized for regional theater, but with nine important roles and another half dozen featured parts, that doesn't leave a large ensemble especially when there are two groups, negro and white. The production fills the smallish stage of the Mertz Theater and nicely spills out into the auditorium on occasion so that its lack of size is not the problem I thought it might be. I am not going to go into the editorial choices that have been made for this playing version except to say that some work very well and quite a few not so much. No matter what, it is great for yet another generation to become acquainted with this American classic, and hear such great songs as "Make Believe," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "You are Love" and "Bill."
The cast is quite strong throughout. Joel Blum as Captain Andy Hawks, father to "one big happy family," brings verve and a really nice comic touch to this central role. Dorothy Stanley as wife Parthy Ann is bossy as needed but also shows the love for husband and daughter that resides underneath the exterior. Marissa McGowan as daughter Magnolia sings beautifully, with a nice easy top. Ben Davis as Gaylord Ravenal "of the Tennessee Ravenals" exhibits the easy charm and good looks required to make the ladies up and down the river swoon and Magnolia fall in love at first sight. Davis sings well and does an exceptional job of conveying the deterioration of the man as finances worsen. Daniella Dalli engages the audience's sympathies as the tragic Julie. E. Faye Butler plays Queenie, cook and earth mother to the women of the Cotton Blossom, while Michael James Leslie brings appropriate gravitas to the show stopping "Ol' Man River," assisted by Johnathan Shepherd, Daniel Belnavis and Nicholas Ward. Elisa Van Duyne as Ellie May Chipley and Denis Lambert as Frank round out the featured cast. The ensemble does strong work in a number of small but telling parts, as well as adding vocal substance to large group scenes.
Director Rob Ruggiero has done a very good job focusing the production, not the easiest task, especially the episodic second act. I wish the tension between the races, an important aspect of the story, were clearer. The two groups are not kept as separate as would have been likely at that time in the South, thereby diluting the underlying drama. Noah Racey's dances are lively and well integrated into the whole. Music Director F. Wade Russo leads an intrepid band of eight, keeping tempos lively. Michael Schweikardt's setting for The Cotton Blossom and its environs, originally designed for Goodspeed Opera, is very effective. Costumes by Amy Clark are lavish, multiple outfits for everyone as time dictated. Frank's various garish outfits were some of my favorites. Every other technical aspect contributes to the success of the evening. Show Boat will delight Sarasota audiences through the holiday season.
Asolo Repertory Theater presents Showboat through December 29, 2013, at the Mertz Theater in the FSU Center. 5555 N. Tamiami Trail. Sarasota, Florida. Box Office (941) 351-8000. For more information visit www.asolorep.org.
Cast (in order of appearance)
* Member of Actor's Equity
Musicians (in alphabetical order)
Directed by Rob Ruggiero