University of Minnesota Showboat Players, Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway
The University of Minnesota's theatre program has long presented shows on the showboat, which is docked on Harriet Island on the Mississippi River. The program's goal is clear – give the program's students a taste of a real production. Instead of running over one or two weekends like most student shows, Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway plays for two months. Now, that's great experience for the students, but what about the paying customers? They get a breezy and energetic show presented by a talented cast of young and enthusiastic performers. That the evening is loaded with Cohan classics is just icing on the cake.
The titular 45 minutes refers to the distance by train from the heart of New York City to the rube-esque hamlet of New Rochelle. There, a young city slicker has discovered that he is the heir to a fortune left by his late uncle. He's certainly thrilled by the prospect of wealth, but maybe not so much by the specter of marriage – and specifically an overbearing mother-in-law. He's not without allies, including his good friend from the city, Kid Harrington, and a young maid, Mary Jane, who has served in the household for years.
This being a melodrama, there is nefarious action going as well. Mr. Cronin has long eyed the dead man's fortune, and isn't willing to let someone like an actual heir get in the way.
OK, you can imagine how the plot turns from here. There aren't any real surprises as to who gets hitched, who gets nabbed and who ends up with the fortune, but that's not what the show is about. Instead, it's a vehicle to showcase Cohan's music. There are a number of sing-along classics here – from "Harrigan" to "Give My Regards to Broadway" – along with some lesser-known gems that are just as fun to hear.
The baker's dozen of on-stage performers (backed pianist David Alstead) have a ball throughout, and that's infectious for the audience. Though the young heir is Thomas Bennett (played with considerable charm by Galen Murphy-Hoffman), the real center of the play is Kid Harrington (John Skelley). Skelley knows this and crafts a character confident in his ability to land on his feet, no matter what life throws at him. Physically and vocally, Skelley is fluid and slick – perfect complements to the character.
The same can be said about Courtney Roche, who plays the maid, Mary Jane. Of all the characters, her fortunes take the most turns throughout the play, but Roche never lets us lose sight of the person being tossed by the whims of the plot, which helps to anchor the action.
Veteran director Vern Sutton makes good use of his young cast and of the charming riverboat space. Though there were occasional technical and on-stage flubs, the show ran as smoothly as most area productions packed with seasoned professionals.
Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway never tries to be more than it is – a simple piece of entertainment hooked together by the music of one of the greats of 20th century American music. These students never lose sight of that either, and – for a couple of hours at least – help the audience leave the outside world behind.
Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway runs through August 26 on the Centennial Showboat, located on Harriet Island in St. Paul. For tickets, directions and more information call 612-227-1100 or visit www.showboat.umn.edu.