Show Boat was a sensation at its premiere because musicals of the 1920s were frothy confections, many of them animated by the brilliant songs of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, and Kern himself, but none with any aims beyond amusement. Here was a romantic musical epicstaged by the most famous producer of his era, Florenz Ziegfeldthat took on the unlikely issues of racial prejudice, alcoholism and marital abandonment as part of a multi-generational spectacle.
Ziegfeld set the standard for pageantry in his production of Show Boat, echoed in a 1990s Broadway and touring production staged by Harold Prince and produced by Garth Drabinsky. In contrast, Schaeffer makes plain up front that he intends to clean the glitter off the old vehicle: the logo shows the illuminated "Show Boat" sign in disrepair, with some lightbulbs burned out and others missing.
The new focus immediately becomes apparent in Signature's intimate MAX Theatre, with seating on three sides of the stage. A group of African-American workers make their first entrance to pick cotton bolls off the plank stage floor while singing the opening chorus. The performers in the troupe led by Cap'n Andy Hawks (a beaming Harry A. Winter) are modestly attired in Kathleen Geldard's costumes, as are the belles and beaux who await them.
Stephanie Waters and Will Gartshore give full-blooded, gloriously melodic performances as Magnolia Hawks, daughter of the show boat operators, and riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal. Terry Burrell is lovely and heartbreaking as Julie, the mixed-race star whose decline drives the plot; she's spellbinding when she sings "Bill." (Interestingly, the two women both have auburn hair, suggesting a bond between them stronger even than their friendship.) And VaShawn McIlwain is quite young, but his rendition of "Ol' Man River" earns its goosebumps.
Among the supporting cast, Kimberly Schraf is appropriately vinegary as Magnolia's mother Parthy, the only one who realizes that Ravenal may not be all he appears; Delores King Williams gets to kick up her heels as the cook Queenie; and J. Fred Shiffman sparkles in a succession of small roles including a sheriff, a combative backwoodsman, and a nightclub owner.
James Kronzer's serviceable and versatile scenic design offers all the necessary settings without the clichés of the paddlewheel or prow of the ship. It all seems lived-in: the stage curtain is grimy and old, the upper deck is bare, and the corners are filled with clutter. The setting brightens (thanks to Mark Lanks' lighting design) momentarily when the action moves the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, but then returns to threadbare rented rooms and rough rehearsal halls.