SHOWBOAT sails into the Shubert Theatre this week (a new home for the Fiddlehead company), to churn up the waters through July 3rd. It’s a vast undertaking for co-directors Meg Fofonoff and Stacey Stephens, with a cast of thousands, well it feels like thousands, when over 60+ actors fill the stage to bring Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel to life. Oscar Hammerstein II tweaked the novel quite a bit to get a handle on the innumerable characters spanning three generations of performers, town folk and dock workers who made the Mississippi riverboats bustle.
What makes SHOWBOAT a classic of the American theater is the memorable music. Jerome Kern’s score and the clever Hammerstein lyrics can take your breath away. Music director Charles Peltz, choreographer Wendy Hall and the vibrant performers on the Shubert stage make the Fiddlehead version feel fresh. The production overflows with standout performances, especially Jeremiah James as Gaylord Ravenal, the dashing riverboat gambler who steals the heart of the Captain’s daughter. Kim Corbett as Magnolia Hawks and James make the operatic “You are Love” one of the show’s highlights. (James’ extraordinary voice has a lustrous range which thrills with its sonority and singularity.)
Brian Kinnard’s resonant bass for Joe’s anthemic “Ol’ Man River” sets the emotional tone that guides the sorrowfully familiar story of bigotry in the South. Sarah Hanlon as the hounded Julie breaks your heart with her bittersweet rendition of “Bill.” Lindsay Roberts as Queenie not only anchors the chilling “Misery” in Act I, she dances up a storm in the “Ballyhoo.” (I used to view Act II as rather scattered and inconsequential but Hall’s vivacious choreography makes you forget altogether what doesn’t jibe dramatically.)
Your head will spin trying to negotiate the math to figure out how some of the characters are still the same age some forty years hence – which the directors expand with an additional character (Kathy St. George) silently reflecting on the story. My advice is, don’t try. Just concede… Perhaps they’ve paid a visit to BRIGADOON! I suspect the Captain’s wife dipped her toes in the TUCK EVERLASTING fountain. She looks three decades younger at the end of the show! (OK. It’s Stephens’ snazzy costumes for the jazz age that do it.)
John Davin follows in the famous footsteps of comedians Joe E. Brown and more recently, Tom Bosley, as the antic Cap’n Andy, pursued at every turn by the delightful Dawn Tucker (against type) as his shrewish wife; with more charming comic relief from Lindsay Sutton (affecting a hilarious squeak) and a cheeky Carl-Michael Ogle as the “featured performers” on the Cotton Blossom stage. You don’t have to “Make Believe.” This SHOWBOAT delivers.