In the Old South, cotton from the fields and performances on steamboats were staples of everyday existence. ‘Show Boat’—the Boston Conservatory Theatre’s newest musical production—recreates and interrogates what is now a distant world by soldering spectacle with keen social commentary. This successful adaptation of the beloved classic musical brims with exceptional talent on which it relies to carry the production.
‘Show Boat’—which opened on April 24—chronicles one family’s journey on, appropriately, a traveling showboat in the South. Captain Andy Hawks (Trent Mills) directs the traveling troupe while his petulant wife, Parthy Ann (Shannon Martinous), keeps his compulsion and whims in check. Their 18-year-old daughter, Magnolia (Elizabeth Ann Berg), falls in love with Gaylord Ravenal (Adam Fenton Goddu), a handsome but incurable gambler who joins their troupe after misfortune strikes the company’s two leads. As the showboat continues to travel, Magnolia and Gaylord gain prominence as the two new stars and they eventually wed. After the couple leaves the boat, Gaylord’s gambling addiction thrusts them onto a see-saw of affluence and poverty; in the end, the play follows the twists and turns of their lives, bending like the curves of the river to which they ultimately return.
In addition to the show engagement with the universal themes of love, sacrifice and struggle, it also casts light on the problem of racism. It highlights the malice of racial prejudices by portraying Julie La Verne (Lori Tishfield), the company’s original lead and Magnolia’s best friend, as a martyr who rescues Magnolia while both face terrible adversities. As director F. Wade Russo writes in his Director’s Note, the show opened on Broadway in 1927 and raised controversy in its “indictment on race relations at the time.” Russo, in effect, tends to direct much of the show’s energy on the hard odiousness of racism.
What is most arresting about the Conservatory’s show, however, is its spectacular musical talent. Berg and Tishfield give especially stellar performances. As Joe, a dockworker on the boat, Nicholas Christopher, Jr. delivers a stunningly noteworthy performance of the musical’s leitmotif, “Ol’ Man River.” His surprisingly crisp and sonorous baritone (surprising because Christopher is of a slight build) wholly conveys the soulful resignation of the song’s pith.
The pit orchestra also impresses, notably flaunting the student talent of the Boston Conservatory. Without missing a beat, the music infuses the performance with richness and vim, as the orchestra propels the production forward. The overture, for example, begins the show with the pit’s own “solo,” allowing smooth, instrumental sounds to set the atmosphere of the Old South.
Nevertheless, some elements, including Anna B. Labykina’s set design, do disappoint. For a musical fundamentally concerned with theatricality, the physical elements of the set fail to convincingly convey the boat’s pageantry. Besides the necessities—a cane here, a bundle of cotton there—the props and set design lack the grandeur of the Old South.
The actors, however, make do with the paucity of props and meager space of the cramped stage. Through their vivacious singing and dance routines, the performers ultimately create the illusion that the set does not.
In its conjuration of the spectacle of the Old South and its incorporation of the onerous and horrid messes of reality, the Boston Conservatory Theater’s latest adaptation of Show Boat is a production that refreshes itself and asserts its modern-day relevance.
As director Russo writes, “More than 80 years after its opening and with a fresh set of eyes, Show Boat still has something to say. It is a feast for the ear, for the eye, for the mind and for the heart.”