Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2004
And now, ladies and gentlemen, I have the pleasure of announcing that a star is born! I have been saying all season that Renée Brna is star material, and here in Show Boat, cast in the leading role of Magnolia, she finally gets her chance to prove it. Brna is a beautiful woman with wonderful smiling eyes and an expressive and impressive voice. She is absolutely enchanting as she plays Magnolia through the 50 years covered during the action of the play. Jimm Halliday has once again turned out a dazzling array of costumes that make everyone look their very best, but Brna, who is not hard on the eyes from any angle, looks just breathtaking.
She is mated with Mark Campbell as Gaylord Ravenal, a tall and handsome blond chap, who also sings beautifully. Their passion seems palpable and you feel their heartbreak when they are torn apart.
In 1925 Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Edna Ferber (1887-1968) spent several weeks aboard the James Adams Floating Palace Theater in Bath, North Carolina, gathering information for the novel she planned to write about a disappearing American phenomenon: the River Show Boat. In a few short weeks, she would gain what she called a “treasure trove of show-boat material, human, touching, true.” In 1926, Ferber published the result of her new found love, the best-selling novel, Show Boat. Immediately composer Jerome Kern (1885-1945) and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) approached Ferber about turning the book into a musical, but she refused until Kern came by one day and sang Old Man River for her. She immediately recognized it as music that would live beyond that present moment, and permitted Kern and Hammerstein to proceed with the project. They enlisted Florenz Ziegfeld (1867-1932) to produce the show, and Show Boat opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City on December 27, 1927. It has been said that American musical theatre can be divided into two parts: everything before Show Boat and everything after. Before Show Boat there was operetta and there were vaudeville and burlesque, but there was not musical theatre as we understand it today. Musicals then did not bother much with plot or character, they were spectacle and comedy and an excuse for pretty girls to appear in tights. Not only is Show Boat based on a respected piece of literature, Hammerstein’s libretto contains almost as much dialogue as song and is definitely a “book” musical.
You may already know the plot of “Show Boat” but if you don’t far be it from me to spoil the surprise. Suffice it to say that it follows the lives of the Hawkes family, owners of the Cotton Blossom, and their river boat cast and crew from 1897-1927. The major theme of the show is commitment and marriage, and what it takes to make a relationship work over the long-haul, but there is an important and tragic sub-plot about racial prejudice and discrimination.
In the role of Julie, the mulatto woman “passing” as white, which was a crime in some states in the late 19th century, Tiffany Thornton looks and sounds great, although it is a stretch to believe she has any African-American blood in her, despite a thick coat of darker-than-usual greasepaint. Thornton is departing the Mac-Haydn after appearing in Show Boat to join a touring production of Fiddler on the Roof, so this is your last chance to see this lovely and talented young woman here in Columbia County. Although Brna is having her moment in the sun, Thornton has been a bright light on the Mac-Haydn stage for several seasons now, and she always turns in a stellar performance. Her rendition of Bill in the second act is deeply touching.
Other stand-outs in the uniformly excellent cast are Douglas A. Jones, Jr. and Nakee-Michelle White as the African-American servant couple Joe and Queenie. Yes, these roles are stereotypical, and they were even in 1927. But Jones and White bring them charm and dignity. And of course Jones gets to sing Old Man River, which he does just wonderfully. The audience I saw the show with stopped the song in the middle to applaud just because they liked him and it so much. White, looking like she just stepped off of the box of pancake mix, solos on Queenie’s Hullabaloo and Dance, but as an old married lady I got a special kick out of Jones and White’s second act duet I Still Suits Me. The day-to-day lunacy of a long-term relationship has nothing to do with race, class, or era.
Karla Shook and Jamie Price are paired as the comedy duo of Ellie and Frank. Shook is all fluff and folly in her brilliantly colored costumes, and Price is (sorry for the pun) a priceless comedian. Not only can he sing and dance, but he is a gifted physical comedic. It is fun to watch him play drunk.
Michael Shiles is a trifle too chipper as Captain Andy, and just how old is he supposed to be by the end of the play if he was old enough to have a marriageable daughter at the beginning and fifty years have elapsed? A little extra grey in the hair might have added to the illusion of time passing.
I have written a great deal and still haven’t mentioned everyone. Sometimes I do that on purpose, following Thumper’s father’s sage advice “If you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything,” but that is certainly not the case here. Everyone on the stage looks and sounds just swell, and they deserve a pat on the back even if I don’t have space to mention them all by name.
Show Boat changed American musical theatre in 1927, and it is still as fresh and entertaining as it was 77 years ago. The Mac-Haydn has produced the show several times, and, although I am sure they have a special room set aside for their Show Boat sets and costumes, there is nothing second hand or recycled about excellent production directed and choreographed by Joseph Patton. Everything about this show sparkles. The music is lovely, the performances are solid, and the voices are glorious. If you don’t see anything else at the Mac-Haydn this season, see this.
Showboat runs through August 8 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004