Glimmerglass Festival opened its 45th season with a sensational Show Boat.
The musical, based on Edna Ferber’s novel about a floating theater on the Mississippi, could have been delivered as just a slice of Americana and even get sweetly sentimental under less capable hands. But Artistic Director Francesca Zambello has dug deeply into this enormously complex body of a work by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern to pluck out its very heart, and expose our country’s diseased coronary condition. She doesn’t flinch but adds another contemporary opinion to Hammerstein’s and Kern’s sure diagnosis that America has been long suffering under multiple diseases: including alcoholism, gambling addiction, spousal abandonment, violence, and racism.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of bunting and gorgeously colorful costumes (the sublime work of designer Paul Tazewell) to make one feel very Fourth-of-July-ish. Even before the curtain went up, the entire auditorium stood and sang a rousing “Star Spangled Banner,” a tradition of the opening night’s festivities, with the color guard provided by Richfield Springs’ Volunteer Fire Department, complete with two volunteers shouldering axes. Well borne!
It was everything an evening of musical theatre should be – with wonderful music, singing and dancing. James Lowe conducts the musical with its eclectic musical styles and tempi with a sure hand, giving us stirring romantic melodies and jaunty operetta waltzes and then “ragging it.” Despite its heft, the show moves musically so well it never loses interest. Eric Sean Fogel is a long time collaborator of director Zambello, and here, once again, his choreography was riveting, making every dancer look swell as the ensemble moved between the popular dance vocabularies of Ziegfeld-showgirl stuff and Harlem-styled shuffles and ‘Black Bottom’ rags of the period.
Lauren Snouffer and Michael Adams give us a central love story that drives most classic American musicals, and they are a gorgeously-matched pair, but the real “wow” of these singer-actors is their near perfect blend of voices: she all operetta song bird and Adams a warm and passionate baritone as one could wish. It’s delicious as always to hear the caliber of acoustic voices that is the trademark of Glimmerglass.
Because of the high-level vocal training of these singers, we get to appreciate all the more the different character vocal choices that are so much part of the musical genre. Klea Blackhurst, as the Captain’s wife (and the puritanical voice for righteous living,) can blow her pipes with the power of Ethel Merman (for whom she’ll deliver a program tribute later in the season,) but she can also affect a seagull “squawk” or extended wail when needed for comic effect.
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Abigail Paschke, as side-kick performer to Snouffer’s ingénue character, can blend beautifully in the big ensemble numbers, but this young comedienne is adept at coloring sung language to create a confidently “flattened” vocal style. Alyson Cambridge, as the tragic Julie, moves from skilled operatic soprano to a piano-bar blowsy sound, and she’s emotionally fearless in her vocal choices to convey her character’s ravaged downward spiral. (Julie has not nearly enough stage time, but Cambridge leaves an indelible impression.)
I’ve come to know that Zambello will challenge and stretch the arc of every character, even demanding fully-imagined lives from all the ensemble performers. There is always dramatically-supported stage interest, and she ends every scene with a kind of exclamation point. Moreover, Zambello delivers in Show Boat, as in every one of her productions, revelations about a music-theatre work we think we know well.
The soul of this production comes with the character Joe and Justin Hopkins’ emotional delivery of “Ole Man River.” Many a production seems to flounder under its weight of three hours and ‘yet another reprise’ of this albeit tunable favorite. Here, each reprise demonstrates the build of the Black Man’s frustration and smoldering anger over the promise of equality deferred. The well known line when “ole man river keeps rollin’ along” changes meaning, becoming an indictment of the system, and when Hopkins poured his heart and voice into “I’m tired of livin’ and scared of dyin’,” I believe we all keenly felt he was singing directly to the heartbreak of our times.
The production never lost its keel as the riverboat Cotton Blossom made its way up and down the Mississippi, and every detail of the production added to the spectacle without overpowering the dramatic tension. The painted stacks on the front curtain with Mark McCullough’s lighting seemed to come to life simulating wafting smoke billowing upwards. The mood shifts he managed with color on the clouds and then, like the sepia-toned gathering of the “coloreds” in front of the storefronts, made every stage picture a lighting masterpiece.
Tazewell’s costumes clearly delineated the White “entitled” world with smart tailoring, bright stripes, and popping red boots and gloves for the gals, while the “Coloreds” wore clothes in a darker palette as they toiled constantly in the foreground, but their costumes always had style and deft accents. Peter J. Davison, as set designer, outdid himself with the theatrically festooned double-decker showboat, complete with its massive red paddle wheel. But all this was magically whisked away in the second act to create Chicago’s grand Palmer House for one scene and a poor boarding room for another, needed to fulfill this ranging, epic story.
Nothing, however, took away from the humanity at the heart of this production. Despite its clear political thrust – and one can only imagine at its 1927 debut the stunned audience which was used to charming little entertainment and parlor-sized melodramas being confronted with the work’s hugely controversial themes – the characters and their inter-relationships save the show from didacticism or bloated production values.
Loren Meeker shared a hand in the directing, and there was a distinct shift of styles in the melodramatic moments of play-within-a-play and diegetic music and the journeys of the many characters. But everyone gets their moment of an inner reveal.
If Joe is the soul of the production, then Captain Andy is its heart, so surely delivered is the performance of Lara Teeter in this role. As a dancer, Teeter delivers in one moment a sharp soft shoe, the next high-stepping jinx, and, in a show-stopping number, a rubber-jointed, straw-man-fall-down, jack-in-the-box clowning when he acts out an entire one-man show of multiple characters in less then 60 seconds. But most importantly, he makes us care deeply about this riverboat-and-theater manager by showing the man’s ability to carry on, to never pass judgment, to forgive, and to hope and see goodness in all. The American virtue of optimism has never seemed so rooted or admirable.
Show Boat at Glimmerglass Festival closes August 24, 2019. Details and tickets
Even Blackhurst as Captain Andy’s wife, who he admits has “a mean disposition” and a true scold, gets to envelop her returning, abandoned stage daughter in a hug and then in a small but telling gesture, tenderly dresses her husband in his Captain’s jacket. Cambridge as the broken, alcoholic Julie, in a single silent wave in the shadows, shows there still exists true affection and selflessness when she chooses to go back on the streets to give her former friend and “little sister” a chance as a headliner at the Trocadero.
Judith Skinner as Queenie is such a charismatic presence on stage, it made me think every theatre needs her, not just for her prodigious talent but for her character’s ability to reel in African-American audiences, which is still under-represented here as in most major theatres across country. Queenie intuits “Misery” before it comes and witnesses the flaws of people all around her, including her brooding and sometimes alcohol-anesthetized husband, but she seems to hold them all in her generous heart, a mother figure to this itinerant troupe. She brings humor and great dignity to this role. She and the fine ensemble cast give us exquisitely detailed moments of how Blacks and Whites lived side by side, finding moments of caring and deep connection, despite an unfair system based on fear, hatred, and alienation.
Even Gaylord Ravenal as played by Adams, is more than a good-looking drifter and is given at the end the potential of redemption. In his reunion with wife Magnolia and their daughter, orchestrated by ‘Nola’s forgiving father the Captain, it is wisely left open whether this man can indeed give up his gambling addiction and be the present parent he obviously longs to be. ‘Nola turns her face out to the audience to contemplate the choice open before her. Can she, should she, forgive? The possibility of redemption is left open for both of them, and, by proxy, for all of us.
I’ll wager you’ll go out humming “Let’s Make Believe I love you.” And, we sure do!
Show Boat. Composed by Jerome Kern. Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Based on the book by Edna Ferber. Conducted by James Lowe. Directed by Francesca Zambello.Co-director E. Loren Meeker. Choreography by Eric Sean Fogel. Set Design by Peter J. Davison. Costume Designer by Paul Tazewell. Lightin Designer by Mark McCullough. Hair and Make-up by Samantha Wooten. Projected Titles by Kelley Rourke. With Lauren Snouffer, Michael Adams, Lara Teeter, Klea Blackhurst, Judith Skinner, Justin Hopkins, Alyson Cambridge, Schyler Vargas, Abigail Pashke, Grant Wenaus, Bela Crow, and the Glimmerglass Ensemble and Festival Orchestra. Produced by Glimmerglass Festival. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.