Regional Reviews: Boston
The company uses the revised Harold Prince version of the musical that played New York in the 1990s, which shuffles songs around and incorporates contemporary dance interludes, as well as sanitizes some of the musical's more dated racial depictions. Fiddlehead's staging subtly highlights changing attitudes toward race during the musical's journey from the segregated docks and theater balconies of 1887 Natchez to the same docks in 1927, now integrated. In a Chicago nightclub at the turn of the century, the directors have several black women in the background cleaning, while the white men run the auditions up front. The early performance of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," an exuberant celebration of black men dancing with their women to a song only black people would know, yields by the finale to the black and white cast dancing the Charleston side by side. Such integration seems optimistic for 1920s Mississippi, but it's still a lovely reminder from the creative team's belief in progress and social change.
The challenge of performing Show Boat today is finding performers who can navigate Kern's operetta-influenced score while finding depth in outwardly stock characters. The character of dock worker Joe, for instance, has little more to do than sing "Ol' Man River" periodically, marking the passage of timethough Brian Kinnard's rich lower register is welcome each time he steps up to sing. The comic charactersincluding Captain Andy, his crabby wife Parthy, and comedienne Ellieseem misjudged, never quite landing all their laughs here. And as lovers Magnolia Hawks and Gaylord Ravenal, Kim Corbett and Jeremiah James only come to life when they sing.
Two women alone manage to create fully realized characters in their brief stage time. Sarah Hanlon is a lovely, anxious Julie LaVerneforced to leave the boat when her mixed-race heritage is discovered. When she reappears in act two, she is a changed woman, giving a husky-voiced, determined reading of "Bill" that evokes all the heartbreak and disappointment she has endured. And Lindsay Roberts is a life force as Queenie, a warm presence who is equally energetic belting "Queenie's Ballyhoo" and haunting as she leads the foreboding spiritual "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun.'" She is a performer to watch for.
While the spoken scenes lag, the large, robust ensemble compensates with rich choral singing and excellent footwork. With a vibrant orchestra of twenty-seven bringing out the deep colors of the score, the show takes off every time a new number begins. Music director Charles Peltz and choreographer Wendy Hall deserve credit for their excellent work here. The sound design in the Shubert Theatre was unbalanced on press nightsome actors hard to hear, others over-amplifiedbut this should sort out once everyone adjusts to the new space.
It's impressive to see Fiddlehead ably meet the size and scope of Show Boat, spanning 40 years and many wig, costume, and set changes along the way. But miscasting unfortunately keeps this Show Boat moored in place. When the vocals and the orchestra take the wheel, the quality of the production finally ascends to the level of Kern and Hammerstein's work. For the rest, we just have to make believe.
Show Boat is presented by Fiddlehead Theatre Company through July 3, 2016, at the Citi Performing Arts Center's Shubert Theatre, Boston, MA. For more information, visit fiddleheadtheatre.com. Tickets are $53-75 and can be purchased at citicenter.org, by phone at (866) 348-9738, or in person at the Citi Center Box Office Tuesday through Saturday.