At Westchester Broadway Theater, ‘Show Boat’ With or Without Dinner

Published: Saturday, January 9, 2016 By: SYLVIANE GOLD Source: New York Times

Yes, you can have dinner theater without the dinner. The Westchester Broadway Theater is now offering show-only tickets for selected performances, allowing patrons to skip the included meals at a substantial savings.

And who needs food when the stage is cooking with a well-sung “Show Boat,” one of the American musical theater’s signal achievements? A classic since it opened on Broadway in 1927, “Show Boat” is one of the first grown-up musicals, a happy marriage of soaring songs by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II and gripping drama lifted from the pages of Edna Ferber’s best-selling novel.

Aboard the showboat, the Cotton Blossom, are the entertainers and backstage folk who keep it running. As it turns out, their interconnected lives have quite as much romance, villainy, joy and suffering as the ones in the stock melodramas they perform as they stop at the river towns along their route. Captain Andy, the genial proprietor played by Jamie Ross, calls his showboat crew “one big happy family.”

But the musical doesn’t spare us the “river rats,” country rubes and intolerant lawmen who can so easily make trouble for that family. Nor does it shy away from the appalling realities of the Cotton Blossom’s time and place, 1887 to 1927 in the American South.

When Inga Ballard, as the motherly cook Queenie, belts out “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’,” there is no doubt she knows what she is talking about. But with all the heartache and hardship that await the show’s young lovers, Andy’s daughter, Magnolia (Lee Harrington), and the handsome gambler Gaylord Ravenal (John Preator), and Magnolia’s best friend, the Cotton Blossom’s reigning diva, Julie Laverne (Sarah Hanlon), there is still room for laughter — one of the show’s best jokes is a wordless one made by a costume. And there is plenty of good-natured showbiz byplay, much of it provided by the showboat’s eager-beaver dance team, Ellie May and Frank (Amanda Pulcini and Daniel Scott Walton).

Their compelling stories have been told and retold in various versions of “Show Boat.” For this production, the Westchester Broadway Theater is using the version adapted in 2011 by Rob Ruggiero for Goodspeed Musicals, in Connecticut. It is less sprawling than previous interpretations, with fewer instruments, fewer voices and some minor alterations in the story. “Our 192nd production,” the Westchester Broadway program boasts, and it is not stinting on elaborate costumes or a grand entrance for the two-deck paddle-wheeler designed by Michael Bottari and Ron Case.

Although the theater’s hangar-like space dispels any possibility of intimacy between performers and audience, Mr. Bottari and Mr. Case have smartly circumvented the problem with their set design, shrinking the distance with large projections that emblazon significant imagery above the stage.

Of course, they sketch in the scenic Mississippi River tableaux that give “Show Boat” its eternal appeal. But the slides also announce the passage of the years, not just with the dates but also with images illustrating how times are changing for the river and its inhabitants. Smokestacks spewing columns of nasty gray fumes slice through the bucolic vistas; a portrait of Abraham Lincoln underlines the fact that the black people working on the showboat and living along its route have all known slavery firsthand.

Like Ferber herself, this production takes sympathetic note of the bit players as well as the stars of her story, including in the background the stevedores on the wharves, the women sweeping up the hotel rooms and the waiters serving in the nightclubs.

Anyone familiar with “Show Boat” will want to know about one stevedore in particular. Joe, who sings what is the musical’s best-known and best-loved song, “Ol’ Man River,” is played by Michael James Leslie, whose rich voice easily fills the theater.

The river is itself played by the impressive lighting designed by Andrew Gmoser. He dapples the stage floor with shimmering ribbons of light to mimic the play of sunshine or moon glow on flowing water. It sets an apt mood for the “tempest and sunshine” of the story, and on occasion it is livelier than the staging.

Too often, Richard Stafford, the director and choreographer, pays homage to the show’s operetta roots, with the cast facing the audience and singing. For the most part, however, he keeps things moving along at an appropriately riverine pace. The dances — soft-shoe routines, ballroom turns and high-kicking promenades — have a period charm.

But even as the characters age and new kinds of music push into the 20th century, the choreography seems stuck in the 19th-century cakewalk, with a few flapper flourishes thrown in. “Show Boat” may be a relic of the flapper era, but there’s nothing old-fashioned about its brilliance.