Within the musical theatre world, “Oklahoma!” is often lauded as the first modern musical, in which the show’s songs and dance numbers are fully integrated within the story line.
That honor, I would suggest, rightly belongs to “Show Boat.”
While it’s true that the 1943 debut of “Oklahoma!” – Rodgers and Hammerstein’s historic first collaboration – would launch a golden age of Broadway musicals, it was the 1927 premiere of “Show Boat” that turned Broadway on its ear and laid the groundwork for the great musical masterpieces to come. With a book by Oscar Hammerstein II and music by Jerome Kern, “Show Boat” premiered at a time when musicals were little more than light-hearted variety shows – a collection of unrelated songs, skits and dance numbers randomly strung together, with no connecting plot or theme.
Against this backdrop, “Show Boat” was a revelation: a musical that not only seamlessly blended storytelling and song, but also addressed such serious issues as racism, interracial relationships, prejudice and gambling addiction. The show would become an American classic, spawning numerous Broadway and touring revivals and three Hollywood on-screen treatments.
The Alhambra Theatre & Dining’s latest production is a worthy successor to “Show Boat’s” landmark place in musical theatre history. With a cast that handles the lightly operatic score and dramatic and comedic aspects with equal aplomb, the Alhambra captures the heart and soul of a musical that chronicles a transformative time in the nation’s history.
Based on the 1926 novel by Edna Ferber, “Show Boat” follows three generations of riverboat performers as they travel the waters of the Mississippi River, entertaining residents of the small towns along the way. Spanning the post-Reconstruction period of the 1880s to the 1920s, the show begins as the Cotton Blossom show boat docks at yet another Southern riverfront hamlet and Cap’n Andy Hawks introduces the locals to his troupe of peripatetic players, including dancing duo Ellie and Frank; handsome hero Steve Baker; and his wife, leading lady Julie Laverne, who enjoys a close bond with Cap’n Andy’s stagestruck young daughter, Magnolia, or “Nolie.”
After Nolie has a dockside encounter with charming riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal (“Only Make Believe”), she shares her infatuation with Julie, who cautions the young girl to be careful who she gives her heart to in “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”
After Steve thrashes a deckhand for making advances toward Julie, however, the rabble rouser makes good on his threat to cause trouble for the couple. He notifies the local sheriff that Julie is actually half black, making her marriage to Steve illegal in the that state.
After Julie and Steve are forced to leave the Cotton Blossom, Magnolia and Gaylord become the show boat’s new stars and soon fall in love. “Show Boat” traces the ups and downs of the couple’s relationship over the next several decades, as Gaylord’s gambling drives a wedge between the couple and impacts their daughter, Kim.
As Nolie and Gaylord, Annabelle Fox and Billy Clark Taylor do an admirable job tracing the couple’s relationship from the heady days of first infatuation through the financial hardships and heartache brought about by Gaylord’s gambling. Patti Eyler and Bill Galarno are memorable as Magnolia’s shrewish mother – who warns her against getting involved with a riverboat gambler – and the doting Cap’n Andy, ever ready to help his daughter pick up the pieces when the bill for Nolie and Gaylord’s years of high living inevitably comes due.
As dancers Ellie and Frank, Katie Nettle and Timothy Ellis provide both comic relief and a shoulder for Nolie to cry on when Gaylord, depressed over his failures, abandons her in Chicago. Perhaps the biggest pleasant surprise of this “Show Boat,” though, is the comic duet between Cherry Hamlin and Peter M. Jackson as married black riverboat workers Queenie and Joe. Their second-act duet, “I Still Suits Me” humorously captures the complaints and good-natured ribbing so commonplace among couples who have somehow managed to stay married for 40 years.
Of course, “Show Boat’s” showstopper is the iconic “Ol’ Man River” – a powerful lament acknowledging that the everyday problems of those on the river will be “soon forgotten.” It’s pretty much impossible to have a successful production of “Show Boat” without a top-notch performance of “Ol’ Man River” and Peter M. Jackson hits it out of the park: His stirring rendition had the audience shouting, cheering and calling for more.
A musical that spans four decades in its characters’ lives – and takes place on a riverboat, no less – can present some logistical challenges for a small theatre, and if there is any weakness in this production of “Show Boat” it comes at the end. A concluding scene set in 1927 seems somewhat compressed, as if key details that might better explain the conclusion have been omitted for time or space constraints. The decision to end with the up tempo “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” also strikes a different final chord than would concluding with a more soul-stirring reprise of “Ol’ Man River.”
Yet overall, this production of “Show Boat” is more than seaworthy, and continues The Alhambra’s 50-year tradition of bringing top-quality productions to local audiences. See it if you can.
“Show Boat” runs through April 2 at The Alhambra Theatre & Dining in Jacksonville.