“Show Boat” has sailed the waters of American theater for a long time. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein first launched the musical in 1927. Their tale of actors, singers, dockworkers and stagehands of the Cotton Blossom (a floating theater on a riverboat) has seen a host of staged and filmed revisions, adaptations and accretions ever since. Director Rob Ruggiero refitted it for a leaner, if not meaner, production at the Goodspeed Opera House in 2011. That version is now afloat on the Asolo Rep stage — and Ruggiero is again at the helm.
The original musical was revolutionary for its time: a serious story, not fluff, which musicals of the time tended to be. This version hews close to the source material (adapted from a novel by Edna Ferber) and takes its characters seriously. But don’t think it’s all serious. “Show Boat” has been described as the first modern musical. In a sense, it was also the first modern sitcom — and I mean that in a good way. It takes us into the private world of a group of people working, living, loving and squabbling together. They’re “one big happy family,” as a character likes to say. That’s the classic sitcom setup. It’s a good bet sitcom writers have lovingly stolen from the musical’s character dynamics in the decades since its premiere. But it does have a plot.
Basically, we follow the lives of the show folks on the Cotton Blossom from 1887 to 1927. There’s the Alan Hale-esque Capt. Andy (Joel Blum) and his uptight wife, Parthy Ann (Dorothy Stanley), and their daughter, Magnolia (Marissa McGowan), whose heart is smitten by riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Ben Davis). Magnolia and Gabe wind up on stage when Steve and Julie (David Sattler and Daniella Dalli), the married headliners, are targeted by anti-miscegenation laws. (These improbable career breaks only seem to happen in musicals, though, to be fair, this was perhaps the first time.) Magnolia and Gaylord become the stars, get married and have a cute kid (Lilly Mae Stewart and Denise Lute). Sadly, Gabe’s gambling addiction leads to destitution; Gaylord leaves for the good of the family. (Spoiler alert: There’s a tearful reconciliation at the end.) Along the way, the Cotton Blossom’s cook Queenie (E. Faye Butler) and her husband, Joe (Michael James Leslie), alternate between moments of love and bickering. Vaudeville-style comics Frank and Ellie May (Denis Lambert and Elisa Van Duyne) do the same. So it goes.
We float along with the lives of these characters. A team of great designers helps pull us into their “let’s pretend” world. The dream comes to life, thanks to Amy Clark’s alternately lush and low-rent costumes (from bustles and bows to patched, faded dungarees), Michael Schweikardt’s versatile set design (the Baroque curved staircases and balconies of the Cotton Blossom one second, a nightclub in Chicago the next) and John Lasiter’s evocative lighting (illumination in imitation of sun, moon and street lights, and never just for effect). These talents help sweep you into the musical’s larger-than-life but true-to-life dream.
All that, and great music, too. Musical Director F. Wade Russo and his orchestra put in a stunning performance. They’re out of sight, but never out of mind. Of course, it helps that these great musicians have great music with which to work. Hammerstein’s tunes are no less than iconic: “Ol’ Man River,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Bill” and many others. The best of the songs draw from the well of African-American music. But this is more than an homage or a rip-off.
The songs move us because of the original story — and Edna Ferber’s original passion for social justice and capacity for empathy for marginalized groups. (The Mexican-Americans of Ferber’s “Giant” were another example.)
“Show Boat” isn’t about the African-American experience. But it doesn’t sweep it under the dock, either. It shows us the deck hands, wharf rats and servants at the periphery of the Cotton Blossom’s floating world.
White entertainers have their often self-created problems; black people work and don’t get paid much; mixed-race entertainers passing for white get kicked off the boat. Life, as your parents reminded you, is unfair. The indifferent river keeps flowing and doesn’t seem to care. The creative minds behind this musical care deeply for everyone in this world.
When you leave, you’ll share the feeling.
IF YOU GO
“Show Boat” runs through Dec. 29, at Mertz Theatre, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org for more information.
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