Fiddlehead Christens New Home With Stunning Revival of Showboat (5 Stars)
by Mike Hoban
Showboat - Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the novel “Show Boat” by Edna Ferber; Music by Jerome Kern; Director & Costume Designer, Stacey Stephens; Co-Directed by Meg Fofonoff; Music Director, Charles Peltz; Choreographer; Wendy Hall; Scenic Designer, Paul Tate Depoo III; Lighting Designer, Zach Blane; Sound Designer, Brian MCoy. Presented by Fiddlehead Theatre Company at the Citi Performing Arts Center Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont Street, Boston through July 3rd.
The Fiddlehead Theatre Company has kicked off its residency at the Citi Performing Arts Center Shubert Theatre in grand fashion with the staging of the 1927 Jerome Kern – Oscar Hammerstein classic Showboat – and the results are nothing short of spectacular. Featuring a cast of 50 (half of whom are Equity actors), a 27 piece orchestra, a set featuring a two-story “showboat” and a seemingly limitless supply of period costumes, Fiddlehead’s creative team has harnessed this vast assemblage of talent to deliver an emotionally charged production that features some of the most powerful songs – in not only musical theater but the entire Great American Songbook. Any show that includes multiple versions of “Ol Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” is bound to keep an audience enthralled, but the rest of the score and the masterfully executed choreography throughout makes the three-plus hour show a don’t miss event for theatergoers.
Showboat spans a forty year period from 1887 to 1927 in the lives of Cap’n Andy Hawks, his comically henpecky wife Parthenia and the various performers on the Cotton Blossom, the riverboat that runs up and down the Mississippi River putting on shows at its various ports. It also gives a not-so-pretty snapshot of the lives of the African-American dock workers (as well as the riverboat’s black support staff) in the decades after the reconstruction period following the Civil War. The contrast between the lives of the white showbiz performers and their patrons to the black folks actually doing the hard work provides a heavier backstory than had been traditionally seen in musicals up until this point, as evidenced by this early number sung by the stevedores:
(N*****s) all work on de Mississippi
(N*****s) all work while de white folks play-
Loadin' up boats wid de bales of cotton,
Gittin' no rest till de Judgement Day.
But while the overtones of the racial inequality simmer in the background throughout the entire narrative of this iconic musical, this adaptation quickly shifts the primary focus to the love story between Magnolia, the 18-year old daughter of Cap’n Andy and Parthenia, and Gaylord Ravenal, a riverboat gambler/playboy. Sparks fly when they first encounter one another, and when riverboat leading lady Julie LaVerne and her husband (and leading man) Steve are threatened with arrest and leave the show because Julie is a mixed-race woman married to a white man, Magnolia and Gaylord step into their roles – and love blooms.
Kim Corbett (who was terrific as Maria in Fiddlehead’s production of West Side Story last fall) is again marvelous in the role of Magnolia, as she transforms from a wide-eyed innocent who is instantly captivated by Ravenal to the beautiful Broadway star who carries the torch for him until the end. As Gaylord Ravenal, Jeremiah James is perfectly cast as the quintessential charming philanderer, with an air of sophistication to match his GQ good looks, and the acting chops to keep us in suspense as to whether he really loves Magnolia or is simply seeking another romantic conquest. But as laudable as the pair are from a dramatic perspective, it is their immense vocal talents that elevate their performances and the entire show to great heights. Corbett’s soprano and James’ baritone are highlighted beautifully right from the start in the playful “Only Make Believe”, and the pair continue to shine in subsequent numbers such as “You Are Love” and “I Have The Room Above Her”.
Although Corbett and James are wonderful leads, this is not a star driven vehicle, as the depth of talent in this show is truly remarkable. Brian Kinnard’s deep bass gets to the heart of both Joe’s pain and his philosophical resignation to his plight in multiple renditions of “Ol’ Man River”, and he’s well supported by the male ensemble. The classic “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” gets three successive treatments early on in Act I, with the first delivered by the white Magnolia, the next by mixed race Julie (Sarah Hanlon), with Lindsay Roberts (as the black cook, Queenie, Joe’s girlfriend) serving up the most soulful version – the one closest to the song’s slavery-era roots. Hanlon also shines with a killer version of the torch song, “Bill”, sung in a nightclub after her fortunes have taken a turn for the worse and she turns to drinking.
There are other standout performances, particularly by Lindsay Sutton as the squeaky-voiced comedian Ellie, who wants her shot as a “serious” actress (but has no chance of achieving that end). Ellie (along with Parthenia) leads the ensemble in a spirited interpretation of “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” and Sutton displays her prodigious hoofing skills along with husband Frank (Carl Michael-Ogle) in the song and dance number, “Goodbye My Lady Love”. And in the show’s final big number, “Kim’s Charleston”, Megan Yates is electrifying as Kim, Magnolia’s daughter who has become a star in her own right. And John Davin and Dawn Tucker provide much needed comic relief as Cap’n Andy and Parthenia.
Co-directors Stacey Stephens and Meg Fofonoff do a good job with the pacing of what could have been a long night of theater, and elicit great performances from the entire cast. And the work of music director Charles Peltz is nothing short of astonishing, not only for the excellent orchestral work but for the almost magical blending of the voices in the ensemble pieces, which is evident even to an unsophisticated musical ear. Wendy Hall also deserves kudos for choreography, especially the “Kim’s Charleston” number, which will surely be remembered as one of 2016’s highlights. This is a great show. See it.
For more info, go to: www.citicenter.org