A cast of 67, an orchestra of 54, and a children’s choir — what is this, the Ziegfeld Follies? Well, almost. It was Florenz Ziegfeld who in 1927 temporarily forsook presenting scantily clad chorines to produce the unique hybrid of operetta, musical and drama that was “Show Boat.” Seventy-nine years later, that number of performers alone may cause production accountants to tremble, but there’s insurance onboard: This gigantic arena revival is in the experienced hands of opera director Francesca Zambello. If you’ve staged all 15 hours of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, what’s three hours in the company of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II? Hell, these guys even wrote jokes.
Ziegfeld billed the show as an “all-American musical comedy,” which wasn’t too far from the truth. This chronicle spanning 40 years up and down the Mississippi encompasses pretty much everything from the work ethic to make-believe via miscegenation, young love, gambling, stardom, bad parenting and alcoholism. Not, you would imagine, too much room for comedy, but it’s there in the actorly antics of the company playing melodramas aboard the Cotton Blossom, the boat of the title.
Floating the boat is, literally, the central problem for the designer, particularly when faced with the circular Victorian masterpiece that is the 4,500-seat Royal Albert Hall. With auds surrounding the stage, there is nowhere to hide and no wing space. Peter J. Davison’s answer is to utilize height and depth.
Pools of water with dry ice hovering over the surface flank a long, wide, raised wooden runway stage floor with small playing areas elevated and lowered via hydraulics. From a specially built rig, the frame of the boat’s upper deck slowly flies in.
In-the-round staging means large set pieces would obscure audience views, so the other element of the design vocabulary here is the acting company itself. In the scene when Ravenal goes to the convent to bid his daughter farewell, a lighting effect of gothic church windows is splashed across the floor and cast members come on as a line of nuns, creating a wall that defines the scene.
Zambello and choreographer Arthur Pita keep the stage alive, employing swathes of people — whether the Mississippi “colored folks” of the opening lyrics, working and lifting cotton bales, or the white folks playing — to keep the slow-to-no-tension first act afloat. The vast stage area seems to insist upon a wide-angle view, but Zambello and Pita keep the aud focused on action in long shot.
The hardest task in all this confronts characters with dialogue. In an auditorium of this scale, everything has to be over-enunciated, miked and amplified, and Bobby Aitken’s booming sound design is anything but subtle.
On the plus side, we hear every bit of orchestral color without the singers being drowned out. But the naturalistic dialogue of intimate scenes sounds barked rather than spoken, tipping most of the comedy toward semaphore.
Most of the central performances, however, overcome the space’s intransigence. Jenny Galloway’s Parthy (think W.C. Fields in a well-upholstered frock) sails through on comic timing. Unhurried, she never deigns to shout. Instead, she starts a line, waits for the audience to catch on, then delivers the finish, thereby landing her every punch.
Neither she nor David Burt’s tirelessly energetic Captain Andy has to cope with much singing. Vocal standouts among the other four couples are Angela Renee Simpson’s majestic, richly characterized Queenie and the Magnolia of Elena Shaddow, whose light but steely soprano grows stronger the higher she goes.
As Ravenal, John Owen Jones doesn’t entirely iron out his “Les Miz”-style vocal mannerism of swooping up to notes, but he uses his easeful tenor sound to maximum effect. His duets with Magnolia — “Make-Believe” and, especially, a rhapsodic “You Are Love” — surfing a wave of orchestral sound, are the evening’s high points.
The most complete perf comes from Rebecca Thornhill as Julie. She sings the torchy “Bill” standing alone on an inner stage bathed in blue light. She wrings every moment of pathos from the song, not by emoting but by restraint. Initially accompanied only by Jake (Seann Alderking) at the piano, her moment is finessed as conductor David Charles Abell allows shimmering pianissimo strings to steal in beneath her voice. Musico-dramatic moments like this, with conductor, orchestra, cast and director all meshing, show why this historic musical has endured.
However you play it — the text has been through ceaseless editions over the years — “Show Boat” is, dramatically speaking, a leaky vessel. Zambello’s pruned-down variant on the 1994 Hal Prince version cannot stop the plots of the first half from overspilling, but she contracts the second-act jump cuts and wraps it all up smartly enough to suggest her arena version is likely sail on into further waters.