September 12, 2002
(this review appeared in an abridged form in the Charlotte Observer)|
Real show boats have been relinquished to the boathouse of history. Hammerstein and Kern’s 1927 musical Show Boat, presented by Theatre Charlotte, retains potency with a litany of themes as American as the multiracial cast that performs it. As a prelude to their premiere, the cast sang “America the Beautiful,” and were oddly moving in their circa 1887 costumes.
The drama, originated as a novel by Edna Ferber, spans forty years and moves from the southern Mississippi River to Chicago. It is the first American musical with a cohesive story, loose as it may be, and sets a fine precedent for the unrealistic plot resolution common in musicals. The play opens outside of Natchez and follows the Hawkes family and the montage of people who work for them.
Cap’n Andy and his unpleasant wife Parthy Hawkes own the Cotton Blossom, a floating stage on the Mississippi River staffed by both performers and laborers, whose positions are determined by their color. Their daughter Magnolia falls in love with a handsome rogue named Gaylord, who whisks her away to Chicago, where the cast eventually reunites. This is where a willing suspension of disbelief comes in handy.
Inequality reigns over the blacks and whites, yet dignity and decorum are written into the lyrics. The chorus “Colored folks work while the white folks play,” is delivered with a hearty dose of irony, but without anger. Captain treats his employees with equanimity of speech, despite the disparity in their positions. Indeed, there is some good natured ribbing between the races. In one scene strangely pertinent today, Queenie gives the Captain a lesson on how to market his show to blacks. And in an uncomfortable reminder of the past, we are reminded that one drop of black blood makes a person black, and therefore unequal, under Mississippi law. Overall, these characters are as decent to each other as convention allows, in a land where racial injustice was written into law.
Excellent casting was Director Ron Chisholm’s most important move in assembling a troupe of over 30 actors. The famous ballad "Ol’ Man River" shimmers through the production like a thread of gold. This haunting song descends upon the audience like a weight each time Kevin Harris sings it. As Joe, Harris’ voice is deep enough to break up fog. Elisha Minter exudes warmth and wisdom as his wife Queenie. Patrick Ratchford plays Gaylord Ravenal with panache. His sonorous voice embraces the lyrics, often and delightfully in tandem with Susan Roberts Knowlson as Magnolia. As Julie, Cynthia Farbman’s rendition of “Bill” is heartbreaking.
The stunning score is delivered by a live orchestra led by Drina Keen. Costume Designer Rebecca Cairns deserves a prize for both volume and variety. Costumes range from calico dresses to polka dot vaudevillian suits to glitzy flapper gowns. The choreography is simple but well executed, so no one lost any teeth during the crowded ensemble productions.
There are plenty of amusing small touches, including the subdrama of intentional bad acting on the boat. Two bumpkins with guns, and woolly mammoth beards, are hilarious as first time show boat goers. This atmospheric piece is a moving postcard of history with songs and stories that keep the boat afloat.
Lynn Trenning, September 12, 2002