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Show Boat

                                   By Ed Lieberman

One of the truly ground breaking Broadway musicals of all time in a gorgeous must-see production.

WBT has another hit on its hands! The “Cotton Blossom” riverboat has steamed its way north to the Hudson and anchored in Elmsford for a three month layover. Cap’n Andy and crew are putting on a great show for the locals, starring his own daughter, Magnolia. Just be careful with your money if her husband asks if you want to play some poker! That’s just part of the plot of the terrific production of Show Boat that will inhabit the dinner theatre through next January.  

Show Boat is one of the truly ground breaking Broadway musicals of all time, with music by Jerome Kern, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II (before his collaboration with Richard Rogers), and based upon a novel of the same name by Edna Ferber, who wrote the similarly sprawling novels Cimarron and Giant. It is considered to be the first serious musical. Written in the 1920’s (opening in December, 1927), it was intended to break the mold: to be a musical play, rather than a musical comedy, which was then the norm. Its plot had several story lines, most of which were unhappy, including interracial marriage (a crime when the show was written), spousal desertion, and racial prejudice. It was the first show to have white and black actors sharing the stage as more or less equals. Moreover, the songs advanced the plot, rather than stopping the action, as was also the norm at the time. And what songs they are: “Only Make Believe (I Love You)”; “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”; “Life Upon the Wicked Stage”; “You Are Love”; “Why Do I Love You (Why Do You Love Me)”; “After the Ball is Over” (written by Charles K. Harris); and the song that is forever identified with the show, “Old Man River.” Classic after classic!

The story covers 47 years in the lives of three generations of the Hawks family, owners of the “Cotton Blossom,” a Mississippi riverboat, and the performers and deckhands on the boat.  WBT has gone all out for this production, with a full cast, large orchestra, imaginative sets and gorgeous costumes, ranging from the work clothes of the black stevedores and deckhands of the mid-1800’s to the sparkling spangles of 1920’s Jazz Era flappers.

John Preator (as Gaylord Ravenal) and Bonnie Fraser (as Magnolia Hawks) Perform “It’s Only Make Believe.”                       Photos By John Vecchiolla

The cast here is worthy of a New York City production. Bonnie Fraser, who plays the captain’s daughter, Magnolia, or ‘Nola, has a beautiful, lilting soprano that is both delightful to hear and easy to understand. She also grows convincingly in the role as her character ages from a teenager experiencing first love to a single mother having to support herself and her daughter. John Preator, who plays her husband, Gaylord Ravenal, has the handsome, suave good looks and manners of the riverboat gambler he plays and also has a great voice that meshes well with that of Ms. Fraser in their memorable duets: “Make Believe,” “You Are Love,” and “Why Do I Love You.” Their chemistry is palpable. Amanda Pulcini, as Ellie May Chipley, and Daniel Scott Walton, as Frank Schulz, provide both comic relief and outstanding dancing chops. Ms. Chipley deserves special mention for her number, “Life Upon the Wicked Stage.”  Sarah Hanlon as the mixed blood Julie Laverne, and Eric Briarley, as her white husband, Steve Baker, convey the stress, and ultimately the pain and heartbreak of a mixed couple whose secret is exposed by a jealous suitor.

Then there’s the story of Captain Andy, Magnolia’s long-suffering father, played by the easy-going Jamie Ross, and his stern, ever-disapproving wife Parthy, played by Karen Murphy. There is a scene in Show Boat where ‘Nola sings in a nightclub for the first time, and Mr. Ross, as her father, urges her to sing louder, presaging Gypsy’s “Sing Out, Louise” by some thirty years!

Finally, there is the story of Queenie, the cook, and Joe, the stevedore, played by Inga Ballard and Michael James Leslie, which provides the “downstairs” view of life in the innards of the ship, to the “upstairs” stories of the white folks. Their story provides the most heartwarming moments, albeit comical, of the show: although she is constantly complaining about Joe’s lassitude, Joe just lets her complaints roll off his back (“I Still Suits Me”). Despite their bickering, their warmth and chemistry make it clear that the ribbing is good-natured and that they are suited for each other. And Mr. Leslie’s deeply felt rendition of “Old Man River” is the highlight of the show.  The ensemble is equally talented; special mention is made here of Alia Hodge and Zoie Morris. The performance which this reviewer attended was a weekday evening performance after a matinee, and had a small audience. It is difficult under such conditions for a cast to generate emotion, yet the cast maintained a thoroughly professional demeanor and level of energy throughout.

As mentioned, the scenery and costumes by Michael Bottari and Ron Case, were gorgeous. The set included a two story riverboat, complete with balcony, and utilized the theatre’s elevator from below the stage to bring up sets showing the below-deck quarters of the negro crew. Lighting, by Andrew Gmoser also highlighted different areas of the set. Musical direction by Ryan Edward Wise, together with sound design by Jonathan Hatton and Mark Zuckerman gave the orchestra, which is larger for this show than typical for the venue, the feel of a full orchestra while not overpowering the actors. The one quibble this reviewer had was with the choreography in the latter part of the second act, when the show attempts to convey the passage of time by projecting years on the back of the stage while couples performed dances from the projected year; the dances looked too similar to convey the desired effect. Other dance sequences, and, in particular Ms. Pulcini and Mr. Walton’s number, “Goodbye My Lady Love,” were just terrific.

In sum, this is a must-see production of a daring show that paved the way for other socially conscious musicals such as South Pacific and West Side Story, with an unsurpassed score that stays with you long after you leave the theater.

Performances continue at the Westchester Broadway Theatre, One Broadway Plaza, Elmsford, NY through November 29, 2015, and then resumes December 30, 2015-January 31, 2016. For tickets call the Box Office at 914-592-2222.