Show Boat... A CurtainUp Review

Published: Wednesday, October 7, 2015 By: Chesley Plemmons

Life upon the wicked stage ain't nothin that a girl supposes. Stage door Johnnies are not hanging over you with gems and roses.
— Ellie Mae

show boat
Amanda Pulcini (as Ellie May Chipley) and Daniel Scott Walton (as Frank Schultz)

When theater talk turns to American musicals and which is/was the best, and why, Show Boat, the 1927 collaboration between Jerome Kern (music), Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics) and Edna Ferber (whose novel inspired it all) is rarely ranked near the top — if at all. It should be.

The colorfully staged, beautifully sung production of this classic at the Westchester Broadway Theater clearly proves why this show is a consummate theatrical collaboration. It's daring in story, ambitious in historic sweep and unmatched in melodies.

Most fans of musicals begin their recollection of the greats with those that followed the dark and cloudy years of World War II. True, there were some wonderfully entertaining shows by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Rogers and Hart prior to that, but the emphasis was almost squarely on presenting a lighthearted view of the human comedy. The exception to the rule was Show Boat with its tragic story of bi-racial love that illuminated the racial prejudices of the time.

Ferber's novel spanned the years from 1880 to 1927, and followed the loves and fortunes of actors who came together performing on the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi river boat. As the years go by, the scene switches to Chicago and its night club scene, Broadway and then back again to the Cotton Blossom for a moving emotional wrap-up. Along the way we're treated to no less than fourteen evergreen songs including "Only Make Believe," "Why Do I Love You?" "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "You Are Love," " Life Upon the Wicked Stage," (He's Just My ) "Bill" and the classic "Ol Man River" which, as powerfully sung by Michael James Leslie (Joe), is guaranteed to produce goose bumps.

Originally produced at Goodspeed Musicals and directed there by Rob Ruggiero, the production has been restaged and choreographed for Westchester Broadway by Richard Stafford. The casting is near perfect with Bonnie Fraser as the young Magnolia, daughter of the show boat owner, Cap'n. Andy (an exuberant Jamie Ross) and his always bossy wife Parthy (Karen Murphy). Murphy makes her role a three dimensional one bypassing the standard cliched portrait of a nag. Fraser possesses a beautiful soprano and her Magnolia evolves over the years from a wide-eyed innocent to a mature, compassionate woman. Her costumes too define the changing styles over the decades moving from a demure dress complete with bustle to a svelte, body clinging gown.

Supplying a handsome romantic partner for Fraser is John Praetor as Gaylord Ravenal, an irresponsible gambler (with a great voice). The duets by these two are sublime. My favorite (almost overlooked by most) is "You Are Love." Listen up!

Sarah Hanlon is a stunning Julie, who is of mixed blood and whose life and career is dashed by racism. She renders her songs on the smoky and sad side. Amanda Pulcini and Daniel Scott Walton are appropriately perky and quarrelsome as a song and dance team. Inga Ballard is Queenie, (Joe's wife) and they're a pair of warm, funny characters. Their duets are amusing and well sung. Once again, cliche is avoided and they come off as genuine and every bit an equal to their white contemporaries.

. The sets, costumes and rear projections of the Mississippi by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case are quite striking. A good looking ensemble adds vibrancy to a slew of cake walks and other period dances.

After all this justified praise, I must admit one caveat, and it's rare that a reviewer has to scold for too much of a good thing. There are, however, just too many songs, reprises and dances for one evening, especially considering there's a solid book to comprehend as well. Including the intermission, the show runs just under three hours and could definitely benefit from judicious, if painful, pruning.