A Show that Floats my Boat

Published: Friday, October 9, 2015 By: Bruce Apar - Bruce The Blog Source: Yorktown News

Westchester Broadway Theatre calls its current production of Show Boat, a landmark Broadway musical stuffed with tuneful standards, “Our most spectacular production in years!

The only thing that bothers me about that boast is they beat me to it!

I’ve seen a lot of the mainstage productions at this regional dinner-theatre and I couldn’t agree more.

This impeccably staged two-plus hours of top-deck entertainment knows how to float your boat, as the admiring audience made clear at curtain call with waves of cheers.   

No sooner does this Showboat pull into dock than you are buoyed by the energy, talent and high-stepping professionalism that washes across the stage with every exquisitely-penned and expertly-delivered number. There are more of those in this historic musical than in any 10 lesser Broadway shows combined.

As long ago as Show Boat was written and premiered — early 20th Century — part of its brilliant simplicity is that it feels fresh and full of life as ever.

From the poignant torch song “Bill” to the soaring romantic ballad “You Are Love” to the upbeat comic relief of “Life Upon the Wicked Stage,” the unforgettable score by composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II has legs longer than the bevy of Ziegfeld showgirls.

Show Boat enjoys a unique place in musical theater history. It is the first musical of note — produced by no less a legend than Florenz Ziegfeld himself — to depart from the lighter-than-air plots that defined musicals of the day.

Until Show Boat paddled into town — to widespread acclaim from critics and theater-goers alike — the books (stories) written for musicals were as mind-numbing as “boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl.” (Think 42nd Street or Anything Goes.)

Show Boat changed all that. Based on a novel by celebrated writer Edna Ferber (who also wrote “Giant” — movie starring James Dean — and “So Big”), it spans five decades and three generations of family, from the late 19th Century to the 1920s. Under the firm hand of director Richard Stafford, the staging is smart and dramatic at every turn, with the passage of years smoothly and clearly conveyed to the audience.

Subject matter previously considered out of bounds for a musical comedy– namely racial intolerance — is what anchors Show Boat. We learn of mixed-race marriage, broken dreams, and abandonment, all handled tastefully, and with just enough gravitas to make a point and move swiftly ahead.

From the shores of the Mississippi River to Chicago to Broadway, we see show folk, dock workers and others struggling, falling in and out of love, and staying one step ahead of the law.

There’s no heavy-handed preaching or self-righteous moralizing here. There’s also never a dull moment. Ultimate credit for striking a perfect balance of story, song and acting goes to Mr. Stafford, whose mounting of this classic is as accomplished as anything we’ve seen at this venue.

As rakish Gaylord Ravenal, a riverboat gambler who weds the daughter of the showboat’s Captain Andy, John Preator brings strong acting and a rapturous tenor.

The goosebumps come out when bass baritone Michael James Leslie (as dock worker Joe) stands center stage to sing “Ol’ Man River,” and bring down the house. It is a bravura performance that rings in your head long after the show ends.

Also deserving special mention is Jamie Ross as Cap’n Andy Hawks and Karen Murphy as his wife Parthy; Bonnie Fraser as their songstress daughter Magnolia; Amanda Pulcini and  Daniel Scott Walton as vaudevillian duo Ellie May and Frank Schultz; Inga Ballard as Joe’s wife Queenie; and Sarah Hanlon and Eric Briarley as showboat headliners Julie LaVerne and Steven Baker.