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A CurtainUp DC Review
It is easy to understand why Signature Theatre chose to produce the musical as the 100th production in this their 20th anniversary season. The music is glorious, the lyrics charming or sentimental, take your pick, and the story heartbreaking in many ways.
Show Boat is about the hard lives of African-Americans living along the banks of the Mississippi river from 1880 to 1927, the prejudices they faced, and the dashing riverboat gambler who falls in love with the Captain's daughter will be familiar to many who see this production. For those who are seeing it for the first time, the exposition, such as it is, could cause some confusion.
The production as a whole is a bit too subdued. Admittedly, miscegenation, losing (but ultimately getting back) a husband, poverty, and so on are not light subjects. Even so, Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations and Jon Kalbfleisch's firm but gifted direction of the 15-piece orchestra makes up for whatever is less than perfect about this Show Boat. The music is sublime and most of these artists do it justice.
Director Eric Schaeffer has reduced the 4-hour original to a more manageable 2 3/4 hours. He's also dispensed with all but one set by the infallible James Kronzer — and it is not a boat. On the two-tiered set, there is a deck-like structure above. Below, when needed, a stage within a stage is rolled forward. A gangplank-like stair connects the two levels. Lighting designer Mark Lanks adds some clever tricks and unforgettable images, such as lighting the crowns of the cotton pickers' hats and the faces of performers on the river boat's stage. Kathleen Geldard's brightly colored, frilly and fun costumes for the white gentry and River Boat performers, and muted earth tones for the cotton pickers help add to the show's visual appeal.
The performers work well together and there are some standout performances, most notably Will Gartshore as the dashing Gaylord Ravenal — riverboat gambler, loving husband and father whose luck runs out. Every time he's on stage the musical elevates both the production and the audience's appreciation of the beautiful music, lyrics and meaning. His performance, his voice, and his acting are perfection. And he is well-partnered. The "Make Believe" duet he sings with Stephanie Waters' Magnolia brings even the most jaded audience (i.e. the press) to the brink of tears.
Other standouts are Terry Burrell as Julie, the bi-racial victim of racists. Her big number," Bill," elevates the show to a tragic, operatic level, although one wonders why director Eric Shaeffer has chosen to have her deliver most of the aria from behind a piano. Delores King Williams brings a light and cheerful touch to the role of Queenie. "Lovin' Dat Man," the dance she leads, a tip off that Julie has Negro (yes, that's the word used, except when its not reduced to its offensive derivative) livens the first act. Choreographer Karma Camp effectively combines the Cake Walk and African-American vernacular dance with the arm movements used by slaves when picking cotton.
VaShawn McIlwain, in a local-boy-makes-good return to Washington (he graduated from the Duke Ellington School for the Arts) delivers the show's most moving anthem, "Ol' Man River," with suitable solemnity and a well-trained operatic voice. His acting, however, is hesitant. As Rubberface (a playful nickname since the character shows zero emotion), Sam Ludwig makes the most of his vignette. Sandy Bainum as Ellie and Bobby Smith as Frank, performers on the river boat's stage, irritatingly slow down the production's momentum. On the other hand, their boss, Cap'n Andy, played with great affection by Harry A. Winter, brings just the right amount of schmaltz to his role as lovable father of Magnolia and producer of river boat.
Even though Signature's Showboat hits a rough wave every now and then, mostly it moves well. Besides, can't help lovin' dose songs.