Showboat, book by Oscar Hammerstein II based on the novel by Edna Ferber; lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, and P.G. Wodehouse, music by Jerome Kern. Directed by John Saunders.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Caitlin Fischer, Ben Jacoby, Seth Eliser, Andrea Doto, John Saunders; photo provided
"The game of just supposing..."
It seems as though there are as many "versions" of the musical Show Boat as there are productions. In the current offering at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, New York, for example, there is an edition of the show in which the married heroine and her husband have no children and are re-united after only a brief split in their marriage, before Magnolia Hawks Ravenal can go on with her career and become a Broadway star. At nearly two hours and forty minutes as a running time, this can hardly be described as a tab version, an old-fashioned way of describing what was basically a touring show cut down to accommodate the difficulties of being on the road. So what do we have here, after all.
We have a good show with heart-tugging scenes, sensational hit songs, and a chorus that would indicate that the southland in the era of the river steamboats was mostly white and only a few blacks lived, worked or were entertained there. We have a female Sandow, the Strongman at the 1894 Chicago World’s Fair. We have a Little Egypt, the exotic dancer, who can just about manipulate her hips. We have some favorite moments in all theater, beautifully performed by a cast that tries so hard to be good that they succeed.
The Mac-Haydn has mounted a highly credible production. Costumes designed by Jimm Halliday are basically beautiful. Lights by Kevin Gleason are appropriately bright and well-focused with a superb color palate. Laura Brignull’s sets are workable for this arena format and don’t interfere with scenes being played. Director John Saunders has put on a very good show indeed and he has developed beautifully designed stage pictures that allow Karla Shook’s dances to work with ease and grace.
A talented cast get to show off the things they do best in this presentation. Heather Dudenbostel is a lovely Julie, the troubled blues singer whose second departure, like her first, gives Magnolia a chance at stardom. Dressed in elegant style, in dark green and gold, she is a dynamic sight to behold. Her singing and acting in both acts was touching and emotional.
John Saunders, the director, also plays Cap’n Andy Hawks (take note, program note writer-and while you’re at it, check your author’s credits too). He is both charming and facile, giving the character’s long stage monologue about his play every opportunity it needs to impress and delight. He gets his laughs too, as do Andrea Doto and Seth Eliser as Ellie and Frank. Doto delivers nicely with her song "Life Upon the Wicked Stage," and the two duet well in song and spar sweetly in their dialogue. Eliser has a wonderful face to watch as he uses his body to sing reactions to the goings-on around him.
Stephanie Gaertner stepped in for Nancy Evans as Parthy Hawks (Evans suffered a broken nose at the matinee) and was absolutely perfect in the role. Monté Howell was an excellent Joe, singing "Ol’ Man River," and Yvette Monique Clark made a hearty Queenie whose "Ballyhoo" went over really well.
In the lead roles of Magnolia Hawks and Gaylord Ravenal the theater provided two of its best: Caitlin Fischer and Ben Jacoby. They not only looked good together and sang well together, there was a real on-stage chemistry that was compulsive and heart-felt. Fischer did modesty a good turn in her performance working her way from it into confidence and then bringing it back late in the show when she needed it. Jacoby was eternally strong and determined and romantic in this role. When the two of them kissed, it was actually electric - you could hear the crackling from the head-mikes all over the theater.
If you know the show, then go and enjoy the performance and the reminiscing that must come from what you see and hear. If you don’t know it, try it out - it was the first musical to deal with miscegenation, with blacks passing as white, with child abandonment and with gambling as a positive lifestyle. And the score is wonderful including, as it does, "Why Do I Love You?," "Only Make Believe," Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine," and the other hits mentioned above.
On just about every level, limitations included, this is a good theatre experience. You owe yourself one, don’t you. This is it.
Show Boat plays through September 5 at the Mac-Haydn Theater, located on Route 203, north of Chatham, NY. For information and tickets, call 518-392-9292.