A Fabulous “Show Boat” at The Glimmerglass Festival

Just last week, with the passing of Harold Prince, I was reminded of what a watershed “Show Boat” is in the canon of 20th-century American musicals. Hal Prince won his 20th and last competitive Tony Award for directing the 1995 Broadway revival. It was mentioned within a tribute to Mr. Prince of how fitting it was that this man who was so instrumental in ushering in change and innovation in the Broadway musical with  “West Side Story,” “Cabaret,” “Company,” and “Evita” should receive his final Tony for “Show Boat” which was hugely influential as the first musical to meld story and song in such a convincing manner.

Judith Skinner as Queenie and members of the ensemble
Photo Credit: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

“Show Boat” is the multi-generational story, adapted from the novel by Edna Ferber (“Giant”) with music by Jerome Kern (“Till the Clouds Roll By,” “Swing Time”) and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II (“Oklahoma,” “South Pacific”) that tells of the family of performers who work on the Cotton Blossom river boat which brings the entertainment to the towns up and down the Mississippi at the turn of the last century. Florenz Ziegfeld produced the World Premiere in 1927 and the show challenged the audience not just in its form but in its content dealing with racism, miscegenation, and alcoholism.

The boat is run by Cap’n Andy and he is played with antic ad endearing good humor and clownish grace by Lara Teeter, his wife is Parthy Ann Hawks played by the formidable Klea Blackhurst who can cut thru her husbands clowning with a loving, stern command that startles as much as it amuses. The stars of the boat at the top of the show are Julie La Verne, Alyson Cambridge who delivers a fierce and wounding “Bill” in the second act and Steve Baker, Charles Eaton admirably making a heroic gesture to save their lives. The Hawks have a daughter Magnolia who they ineffectually discourage from show business with “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” but who meets a riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal, raffishly played by Michael Adams and their duet “Make Believe” sends the show into theater heaven. With that song I could see the young woman putting on airs, the ne’er do well working a con and the absolute faith of method actors all conspiring to create a truth thru music, a new reality that didn’t exist before.

Justin Hopkins as Joe and Lauren Snouffer as Magnolia Hawks
Photo Credit: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

That song opens a sequence of songs followed by “Ol’ Man River” magisterially and elementally sung by Justin Hopkins and “Can’t Help Lovin Dat Man” at first sung by Julie to Magnolia but then after the ship’s cook, Queenie (Judith Skinner giving an audience favorite performance that beams into the house) comments that it’s strange that Julie should know such a song as she has only ever heard negroes sing it. Queenie picks up the song and transforms it into a celebration. Those three songs, one after the other, rolling over you as a force of nature are nearly overwhelming in the history of American musical theater and inspire awe at Kern and Hammerstein’s achievement.

The Cotton Blossom stars are accused by Pete, an aggrieved admirer of Julie, powerfully played by Spencer Hamlin of marrying between the races. Julie is mixed race and she and Steve are guilty of the anti-miscegenation laws at the time but they avert jail with Steve cutting Julie and drinking her blood so he has mixed-blood as well and can get all who witnessed the act to swear to it. Also contributing greatly to the show biz milieu are Abigail Paschke as Ellie May Chipley and Schuyler Vargas as Frank Schultz who are the most welcome comic second bananas who also happen to have excellent voices and move beautifully. Bella Crowe affectingly played Magnolia and Ravenal’s daughter Kim. The leads are superb!

Judith Skinner as Queenie and members of the ensemble
Photo Credit: Connor Lange/The Glimmerglass Festival

The production is gorgeous. The show’s scrim of a ship’s steam pipes goes up to reveal a painting of the cast as stevedores frozen in place in front of the town’s curtain of storefronts before the first lines are sung: “Colored folks work on the Mississippi/ Colored folks work while white folk play.” The town’s dusty, earthen tone curtain rises to reveal the Cotton Blossom festooned with red, white and blue bunting and stars and stripes. The structure of the ship itself is fantastic, two multi-level units with a staircase and a paddlewheel that can be positioned in multiple different ways to create playing spaces on the docks looking up at the boat, on stage playing to an audience or from the ship’s quarters and galleys. I especially liked the back curtain of clouds that picked up varying shades of blue and a monarchial purple. It was beautiful and highly functional, excellent work by Set Designer Peter J. Davison and Lighting Designer Paul Tazewell! The costumes were sumptuous, eye-popping and matched the scenic elements perfectly. Special mention must be made of the choreography of Eric Sean Fogel who grasped every opportunity available and filled it with show biz sparkle. The conductor was James Lowe and the glorious score was performed exquisitely. Francesca Zambello, the Glimmerglass Festival’s Artistic Director was the director of this production as well and she has done a miraculous job of integrating the classic American musical into the Opera House. This “Show Boat” is a triumph in every way and thoroughly deserves the sold-out houses and showers of confetti it employs so joyously.

“Show Boat” runs thru 8/24
The Glimmerglass Festival
Box Office: (607)547-2255

Abigail Paschke as Ellie Mae Chipley, Schyler Vargas as Frank Schultz and members of the ensemble
Photo Credit: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

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