How can a show be a masterpiece if it has no official version? That's the question I always pose to my students when we cover Show Boat. There's no question that the show is historically significant. With Show Boat, librettist and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, along with composer Jerome Kern, introduced credible drama, three-dimensional characters, ambitious musical sequences, dramatically purposeful dance, and a host of other innovations to the musical stage.
But Show Boat has changed significantly since its 1927 premiere, with every subsequent stage version and movie treatment. Songs and scenes have come and gone. Depending on the version you happen to catch, the entire second act might look completely different from that of any previous production you may have seen.
And the tinkering continues to this day with the current production at the Goodspeed Opera House, which opened this past Wednesday. The good folks at the Goodspeed set for themselves two primary challenges with this production: to find a way to make this sweeping pageant of a show work in the diminutive Opera House space, and to streamline the show to make the whole event clock in at around two and a half hours. I'm very happy to report that the Goodspeed production succeeds splendidly in its first goal, but as for hitting the mark on the second, well, the production is certainly swift and efficient, but at the expense of the human drama that's crucial to the overall effectiveness of the piece.
It's difficult to imagine that the Goodspeed has never done Show Boat before. The setting is perfect: the theater is perched on a scenic riverfront, and the building itself is a charming slice of Americana. Take a look at the photo to the right: doesn't it just look like the boat pictured above might pull up at the dock at any moment? Also, the Goodspeed auditorium looks as though it could be the actual hall from the titular show boat.
And this last point becomes one of the key elements in making Show Boat work in this compact house. The scenic design by Michael Schweikardt is both attractive and ingenious. In addition to designing a stunning set piece for the actual on-stage boat -- which places the audience on the ship rather than staring at the side of the boat, as many productions do -- Schweikardt takes full advantage of the Goodspeed auditorium, with its brass railings and horseshoe-shaped balcony, to create the illusion that the audience is actually in the hall of the show boat itself. It's simple but ingenious. I never got the sense that the show needed a bigger playing space. Not once. That's effective design. Director Rob Ruggiero shrewdly places performers throughout the hall throughout the show, and has cast members make many of their entrances and exits through the house to emphasize the atmospheric design of the show.
But whereas the design and direction make an asset out of the performance space, this script and score for this particular version of the show were somewhat less successful. The production staff have made what the press materials call "adjustments, edits, and changes," with the full knowledge and approval of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization. The result is streamlined and brisk, but emotionally a bit cold. Part of this might be the breakneck pacing. Even the song tempos seem accelerated, particularly in "Make Believe" and "Why Do I Love You?" I got the impression that Ruggiero was at the back of the house with a stopwatch, watching every song and scene with an eye toward efficiency.
But the real problem seemed to be that the staff have removed too much material that develops the central relationship, between Magnolia Hawks and Gaylord Ravenal. The role of Gaylord seems particularly pared down. As a result, the show hits all the important plot points, but doesn't give us time to stop and care about these people. Casting may be partly to blame here. Ben Davis as Ravenal has a terrific voice, but he doesn't have the physical countenance to give the role the larger-than-life quality it needs. Davis was never less than professional, but he wasn't dashing or charming, or full of the kind of dangerous appeal that Gaylord really needs to have to make the audience believe that Magnolia would fall for him at first sight. As Magnolia, Sarah Uriarte Berry started off a bit overly childish, but developed greater balance as the show progressed. She fared far better in act two, the events of which seem more suitable to a performer of Berry's experience.
[SPOILER ALERT: I reveal the final tag of the show in the last paragraph]
The rest of the cast was almost universally strong. Lenny Wolpe was flat-out adorable as Captain Andy Hawks, with a delightful sense of mischief and playfulness that made him the heart and soul of the show. Karen Murphy made for one of the most imposing, but ultimately charming, Parthys I've ever seen. David Aron Damane as Joe gave a positively stirring rendition of "Old Man River." The only significant hole in the supporting cast was Lesli Margherita as Julie, whose "Can't Help Loving That Man" was marred by histrionic, Elphaba-esque vocal affectations. And her "Bill" was somewhat bizarre. I'm not sure what she was going for here, but she came off a bit more wild-eyed than the role would seem to demand. (A special shout-out to three of my favorite students, making their professional acting debut in this production: Elizabeth Ann Berg, Robert Lance Mooney, and Adam Fenton Goddu. Remember, guys and dolls: Show...Boat = Two...Words. Embrace the space!)
One change that the production staff made to the show that worked extremely well here came at the very end of the show. Depending on the version of Show Boat you may have seen previously, the show probably ended with Magnolia and Ravenal seeing each other for the first time in 20 years. Often, the final tag of the show has Magnolia and Ravenal fondly watching their now-adult daughter Kim from afar as the music swells and the curtain falls. But here, Ravenal approaches Kim, who recognizes her father, and rushes to his embrace. For me, it was the most emotionally stirring moment in a show that ideally would have provided a whole lot more.