For such an old ship, the Cotton Blossom’s in no danger of sinking. Over the course of eighty years it’s been buoyed by national adoration for what transpired on its decks in 1927. Brought to life by Jerome Kern’s pen and Oscar Hammerstein II’s piano, Show Boat fostered the American theater’s first true marriage of long form narrative to ensemble song. The DNA for the American musical took flight like a cotton boll on the wind, and the rest is history.
If anything, a new production of Show Boat runs the risk of floating away on the swells of its own legacy. Signature Theatre’s work on this – their 100th show – consequently strives to get over a case of low blood pressure. Can a piece of theater chart new waters when its path is as wide and predetermined as the thick flow of the Mississippi?
If Show Boat has the capacity to impart any fresh lessons on love and life, it’s not evident here. But the end result, if not especially provocative, is still plenty diverting. And if anybody’s going to adopt this granddaddy of a musical, it had better be Signature. The company’s work is finely tuned, sometimes impeccably so. The music, featuring lush new orchestration by Jonathan Tunick, is vibrant and playful. And although director Eric Schaeffer forgets at moments to keep his hand on the drifting rudder, the actors and orchestra comprise an upbeat and enjoyable crew of wandering thespians, set adrift on the Cotton Blossom on the eve of the twentieth century to see the world and spread some classic stories up and down the riverbanks.
As for their own personal journeys, modern audiences will likely find them pretty rote. It’s a classic tale at heart: boy meets girl, girl says hello to boy (a gauche move, to hear her mother tell it) and then things go, well, pretty much according to plan, with some nominal plot twists dropped off along the way in tidy little parcels.
Once aboard the floating theater, the young, handsome riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Will Gartshore) falls top hat over heels for the equally young, equally handsome Magnolia Hawks (Stephanie Waters), daughter of the cheerful and much-loved Cap’n Andy (played with a wink and a grin by Harry Winter). Ravenal can’t win a drop of approval from Magnolia’s mother Parthy (Kimberly Schraf, wonderfully sour) but, suddenly, local charges of miscegenation send two of the ship’s star actors packing, giving Ravenal a chance to step up as leading man. Cue the sing-alongs.
The Cotton Blossom is a musical universe unto itself, an oasis of song floating down that most musical of American rivers – you have to sing its name just to spell it, for pete’s sake – and packed full of traveling actors and singers hungry to work their pipes. “Cap’n Andy, Cap’n Andy, you know how to make a show sound dandy” they chirp in the opening number “Cotton Blossom”. Later, for “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” they literally come out of the woodwork, swooping between beams and ducking under rafters. No wonder the show’s title has become a term for stealing the spotlight.
These moments of hammy communal glee keep Show Boat alive. Even in the throes of love – and Gartshore and Waters do make a charming couple – the show must go on. The ship’s stage finally materializes on deck like a sheet of layer cake, and the show they put on smacks of unabashed populism (Bobby Smith is hilarious as Frank, playing the mustachioed villain, who keeps breaking from dialogue to bow mid-scene). For a moment, during this fun and funny play within a play, we brush up against some poignant little truth about a forgotten page in our theatrical heritage. Before the days when cameras cast light and pictures moved, one might have braved the river waters to catch a story like this.
The wooden planking on deck may be stomped and scrubbed down to a weathered gray, but this Show Boat’s sense of design is as polished as they come. Scenic designer James Kronzer has worked a wealth of tender detail into his expansive set. On deck, show posters have turned to sunburned parchment in the Southern heat. Further back in the shadows, an empty canary cage swings over a dusty upright piano, packed away among wooden trunks and hanging stools and chairs. Mark Lanks’ beautifully designed series of lights captures the complex personalities of sunlight and evokes an elegant living portrait of weather on the water.
It’s in the show’s second half, when the characters leave the Cotton Blossom for solid ground, that Show Boat dries up, trading lively romantic intrigue for a string of expositional scenes that detail how money inevitably runs out, lovers break hearts, and the years slide by with irrevocable haste. At two hours and forty minutes, the show’s an hour short on plot, and much air has been lost from the buoyant Act One by the time the jaded Ravenal and Magnolia are reunited. In part that’s the nature of the beast – early uncut productions of Show Boat often ran, amazingly, up to four hours – but in several late scenes of this production the melancholia simply feels quoted rather than earned. The song “Bill,” however, is a moving exception; as the performer Julie La Verne, Terry Burrell’s memorable take on the ballad has more personality than the rest of Act Two’s scenes combined, putting emotional poverty to tune with bruising clarity.
Not every link in the long chain of performers holds tight, and a few casting choices are strangely off-the-mark in terms of age. The young VaShawn McIlwain, especially, needs a few more decades under his belt before he’ll truly seem “tired of livin'” as the deckhand Joe. But the majority of the singers impress. After a shaky few minutes early on, Gartshore’s voice comes to life, and his muscular rendition of “You Are Love” is especially strong. Sandy Bainum offers a fun, pure hearted portrayal of the comedienne Ellie. Delores King Williams provides Queenie – a matronly role teetering on stereotype – with enough heart and personality to tip the scales in her favor. And McIlwain belts a furiously rich and operatic version of “Ol’ Man River” that resonates in your bones for the rest of the night.
NOTE: On Sunday night, a number of audience members I spoke with expressed dissatisfaction with sightlines in the right side section of the Max theater space, citing a lack of ability to see upstage action and to read a series of projected texts. Similarly, a scene in Act Two featuring downstage tabletops generated frustration with blocked sightlines within certain rows of the center section. Ticket buyers may wish to take this under advisement.
Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Music by Jerome Kern
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Produced by Signature Theatre
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
- Lisa Troshinsky . Washington Diplomat
- David Hoffman . Fairfax Times
- Faiga Levine . JustTheater
- Susan Berlin . Talkin’ Broadway
- David Belcher . NY Times
- Missy Frederick . DCist
- Leslie Milk . Washingtonian
- Paul Harris . Variety
- Jayne Blanchard . The Times
- Peter Marks . The Post
Tom Avila . MetroWeekly
Trey Graham . City Paper
Michael Toscano . Theatermania
- Brad Hathaway . Potomac Stages
- Barbara MacKay . DCExaminer