Signature Theater specializes in right-sizing hefty musicals for today’s budgets, as with “Les Miserables” last season and earlier with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Allegro.” Its latest undertaking is Hammerstein and Kern’s 1927 staple “Show Boat,” reduced from 48-plus performers to a manageable 25 and staged on a modest set without a paddlewheel in sight. While the resulting production offers an appealing display of the musical’s timeless melodies, it sorely misses the colorful trappings and can’t hide an antiquated book that will appear ever so distant to 21st-century auds.
Under the attentive eye of author Edna Ferber’s estate and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, Signature a.d. Eric Schaeffer has revised the script, altered the musical lineup and ordered new orchestrations from Jonathan Tunick for 15 players. His team worked principally with the 1946 revival, as well as the original version, and the 2006 opera in Berne, Switzerland. They snipped away at dialogue and dance music but actually added two numbers that had been deleted after the first performance — “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Round” and “Queenie’s Ballyhoo.”
Cap’n Andy’s boat, as viewed from the deck in James Kronzer’s sparse multilevel set, still plies the Mississippi for 40-plus years, but the vehicle is not as seaworthy as it was 82 years ago. For starters, there’s the famously dismissive treatment of racial inequality, lamented in the beloved “Ol’ Man River” and other elements but otherwise deemed acceptable within a melodramatic storyline about “white folks.” Schaeffer’s staging emphasizes the injustice to the extent possible, but he clearly can’t imbue the show with the social consciousness today’s audiences will expect.
Secondly, this scaled-down “Show Boat” offers mixed blessings. Its highest points revolve around the music, which is impressively showcased by Jon Kalbfleisch’s full-sounding orchestra, embellished by Karma Camp’s lively period choreography and supported by a talented cast of strong voices led by Will Gartshore’s Gaylord Ravenal, Terry Burrell’s Julie and Stephanie Waters’ Magnolia.
But the absence of more vividly portrayed destinations introduces a vanilla feel that robs this approach of an essential ingredient. If any tinkering is to be done with this treatment, it would logically start with dressing up the numerous scene changes encountered en route.
VaShawn McIlwain’s Joe serves up a passionate version of “River” even though he’s not the booming baritone one expects. “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” is given maximum exposure by the company in act one and in Waters’ tender act-two reprise. Gartshore and Waters team beautifully on “Make Believe,” while Burrell hits a homer with the tender “Bill.” In the role of Queenie, Delores King Williams is a sensitive presence, especially when delivering her number, “Mis’ry.”
Other standouts in the cast include Harry Winter’s easygoing Cap’n Andy, Bobby Smith’s intrepid entertainer Frank, and Kimberly Schraf’s shrewish wife. But the portrayal of multiple roles by many cast members doesn’t always work. For example, local trooper J. Fred Shiffman makes an imposing sheriff, but when he appears moments later in a campy hillbilly role, and again in an act-two chorus line, the overall effect is cheapened.
Yet Signature’s earnest new version of “Show Boat” could easily pique the interest of nonprofit theaters eager to revive this showbiz standard. The key ingredients are in place, the score is a classic, and the antiquated book in many respects can be considered part of the charm.