The legendary team of Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern created some of the best music ever written for the American stage in Show Boat. And each song gets a stellar rendition by Toby’s cast. Reason enough to grab a ticket.
But along with its memorable melodies, this 1927 musical packs an important message for modern audiences. An evening at ‘musical theater’ on Broadway before Show Boat was mostly either operettas or revues in which a villain might threaten a heroine, but the elaborate musical numbers of pretty chorus girls before and after often had nothing to do with the play itself. Show Boat‘s producer was none other than Florenz Ziegfield, Jr whose name was synonymous with gorgeously gowned chorines.
The musical, based on the Edna Ferber novel “Show Boat” was a radical departure. Yes, it has a beautiful heroine who stands by her man, and a comedic duo for humorous scenes, and plenty of pretty girls singing and dancing. But running through the fluff there are also darker themes at hand: gambling, alcoholism, and the racial disparity of the South of the mid-1880s. It had a racially mixed cast, one in which African American actors had principal parts alongside white actors. Producing it was a radical risk for Ziegfield.
At heart it is a decades-long love story, of Magnolia (Abby Middleton), who is 18 when we first meet her, and her handsome riverboat gambler love (Russell Rinker). Rinker’s beautiful tenor soars through one of the loveliest songs of the show, “Make Believe”, and he is equally matched by Middleton’s flawless soprano. For modern audiences, the secondary love tale is far more compelling. Julie Laverne, the riverboat’s leading lady,(Julia Lancione) is biracial and ‘passes’ for white only to be cast away from the showboat when her secret is revealed; her white husband Steven (Justin Calhoun) at first stands by her but drifts away soon after.
As a counterpoint, riverboat worker Joe (Marquise White), and his wife, Queenie, the boat’s cook, (Samantha McEwan Deininger) are a loving couple, but outsiders to much of the action. Joe’s soaring song, “Ol’ Man River” is both an anthem to life on the river and a bittersweet commentary on the different lives the white folks lead and the endless toiling the black workers knew. Marquise White does it justice, though it’s a tough song for even the most accomplished singer.
Admittedly, the musical is showing its age a bit; the first act is overlong despite modern adaptations, and the events of the second act, with three decade’s worth of action crammed into a bare hour, seems perfunctory. A lot of coincidences happen that don’t really ring true to modern ears: Magnolia is magically ‘found’ by the comedy act looking to rent a room, and her father just ‘happens’ upon her singing at a club. It’s a bit speedy, and although Julie sacrifices herself to help Magnolia in the end, we never really see what happens to Julie herself, and we do care about Julie. And most improbable to modern sensibilities, Ravenall comes back- after twenty years- and Magnolia meekly accepts him.
So why see Show Boat at Toby’s? I’ll tell you why: the fantastic cast, for one thing: each principal, from Magnolia and Ravenall to Julie, Joe and Queenie, is well cast. As Queenie, Samantha McEwan Deininger has both comic chops and a glorious voice that stands out in the crowd.
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closes March 19, 2017
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There’s some fine comedy by Robert John Biedermann 125 as Magnolia’s father Captain Andy and Jane C Boyle as his shrewish wife Purdy, as well as the showboat’s comedy team of Ellie (Elizabeth Rayca) and Frank (Jeffrey Shankle). The ensemble, many of whom play multiple parts, is as polished a cast as you could ask for. Costumes, by AT Jones & Company and coordinated by Lawrence B Munsey, is as tiptop as always: one of Toby’s strengths is the consistently fine costuming. Admittedly, you’d be hard pressed to drag a whole riverboat into the place, but the spare sets of David A Hopkins do the trick nicely- look towards the back entrance and you’ll even see the outlines of paddlewheels.
One more reason to see Show Boat: you can take the kids. Not just for the music, though it’s so full of musical beauty that’s an awfully good reason. Take them for the message of the show, as true and as topical now as it was ninety years ago. Bigotry has no place in American society, not then and not now. Fancy that, an old classic with a lesson still to teach us.
Show Boat . Music: Jerome Kern . Book & Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the novel by Edna Ferber . Directed by Mark Minnick and Toby Orenstein . Cast: Russel Rinker as Gaylord Ravenal; Abby Middleton as Magnolia; Julia Lancione as Julie LaVerne; Marquise White as Joe; Samantha McEwen Deininger as Queenie; Jeffrey Shankle as Frank; Elizabeth Rayca as Ellie; Jane C Boyle as Parthy; David Bosley-Reynolds as Ensemble; Robert Biederman 125 as Captain Andy; Justin Calhoun as Steven/Ensemble; Allie O’Donnel as Kim/Ensemble; Noah Israel as Windy; Jeremy Scott Blaustein as Ensemble; Coby Kay Callahan as Ensemble; Bobby Cook Gallagher as Ensemble; Ander Hinda as Ensemble; Marykate Broulliet as Ensemble; Santina Maiolatesi as Ensemble; Decarlo Raspberry as Ensemble; Holly Kelly as Ensemble; Anwar Thomas as as Ensemble; Kammeran Tyree as Ensemble; Taylor Washington as Ensemble; Swings: Rebecca Vonover, Stephen Foreman Choreography: Mark Minnick . Costume Coordinator: Lawrence B. Munsey . Costume Design: AT Jones & Co . Set & Lighting Design: David A Hopkins . Sound Design: Mark Smedley . Musical Director: Ross Scott Rawlings . Stage Manager: Kate Wackerle, Erin MacDonald . Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theatre . Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.