Peter Marks reviews 'Show Boat' at Signature Theatre

VaShawn McIlwain performs "Ol' Man River" and Stephanie Waters and Will Gartshore perform the duet "Make Believe."
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 19, 2009

Signature Theatre set out to solve problems in its revival of the inherently difficult "Show Boat," and in the process coughed up some new ones. Sapped of its vivacious epic strength, starved for any trace of the flavors of its evocative locales, the musical now comes across as wan and bloodless -- a boat in dry dock.

It was probably a useful experiment by Eric Schaeffer and his longtime choreographer, Karma Camp: trying to find a simple, streamlined approach to the panoramic 1927 show, considered by many the prototype for the modern American musical, with a score revolutionarily insinuating itself into the story. Schaeffer has had success in the past miniaturizing the dimensions of sprawling works, as he did most recently with his sleekly contained and robustly sung "Les Misérables." How the director might tame this leviathan of a show was a matter of intense curiosity.

"Show Boat," though it boasts a ravishing score filled with standards -- "Make Believe," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "Ol' Man River" -- presents a whole passel of larger challenges. Oscar Hammerstein II's script for the musical, whose plot spans 40 years in the life and times of a family of Southern riverboat entertainers, has been tinkered with numerous times, in an effort to strengthen the spine of the story and eliminate what is often perceived as offensiveness in the depiction of its black characters.

The director has reportedly taken inspiration from several of "Show Boat's" previous, revised incarnations to stitch together this version, which clocks in at an economical 2 hours 45 minutes. Unfortunately, the seams show. While the musical is about the changing currents of American society -- only that rolling river remains constant -- the production itself never manages to bottle the kinetic spirit of a nation in flux. It has the minor, helter-skelter feel of a project that is still trying to figure out what bigger picture it wants to convey.

On occasion, this "Show Boat" does overcome its woodenness and sparks to life, thanks to a particular actor or song. The musical finds a needed energy boost, for example, whenever Bobby Smith is on the stage. He plays a comedy performer on the boat of hail-fellow Cap'n Andy (Harry A. Winter) and his scold of a wife Parthy (Kimberly Schraf). What you get from Smith's portrayal is a sense of the genial facade of a song and dance man and the deeper desperation that afflicts him through his thwarted dreams. As the rakish Gaylord Ravenal, Will Gartshore not only sings "Make Believe" with gusto, but also chooses to play the character -- the erratic mate to Andy and Parthy's daughter Magnolia (Stephanie Waters) -- as something more interesting than a mere cad.

And in the nicely played scene in which the racial parentage of the songbird Julie (Terry Burrell) is cruelly brought out into the open, Burrell and Jim Newman, as Julie's husband, Steve, quietly, affectingly embody the wrenching dilemma the world has created for them.

The canvas that Schaeffer and rarely off-the-mark set designer James Kronzer have selected for Jerome Kern's timeless melodies and Hammerstein's teeming libretto and lyrics, adapted from a novel by Edna Ferber, could hardly be less memorable. It's a wooden platform, with a pair of ladders to an upper level, where a 14-member orchestra is ensconced behind a screen. A wide door in the set opens to allow the rolling out of a stage, for the show-within-a-show scenes.

The effect is utilitarian and about as visually inviting as a visit to a filling station. (Kathleen Geldard's costumes, particularly the dresses with bustles, don't uniformly show off the actresses as flatteringly as they might.) A garage aesthetic is of course in Signature's DNA; the company grew up in a former auto body shop not far from its current handsome headquarters in the Village at Shirlington. And though a literal representation of Cap'n Andy's boat, the Cotton Blossom, is not required, you crave some concrete sense of place -- or maybe, simply, just a clearer idea of where we're supposed to be physically at any given time.

The drabness should be relieved by the musical numbers, and there are a few moments that create a stir, as when VaShawn McIlwain, playing Joe, croons the culminating refrains of "Ol' Man River," with a quartet of other men supplying the virile multi-part harmony. As Queenie, Delores King Williams does fine with "Mis'ry Comin' Aroun' ," a song that has been cut in many versions, and Waters is tunefully crystalline in her Act 2 reprise of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." Camp's choreography, meanwhile, is serviceably apt.

Sporadic, though, is as frequent as the enjoyable interludes of Signature's "Show Boat" manage to be. Schaeffer has tried to handle the musical's stereotypes with some delicacy, adding, for instance, the visage of an actor in the clothes of a well-heeled African American man, to the penultimate reprise of "Ol' Man River." Like many of the conceits in this production, however, this one contributes to the notion that the director is engaged most energetically in the thankless job of trying to plug up the leaks.

Show Boat

Music by Jerome Kern, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreography, Karma Camp; lighting, Mark Lanks; sound, Matt Rowe; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick; music direction, Jon Kalbfleisch. With Sandy Bainum, Chris Sizemore, Matt Conner, J. Fred Shiffman, Sam Ludwig, Helen Hedman, Mardee Bennett, Aaron Reeder. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Jan. 17 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit or call 703-573-7328.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company