MTH Theater at Crown Center offers up lively entertainment packaged around a history lesson in a spirited, scaled-down production of “Show Boat,” the 1927 classic by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II.
Director Jeff Church assembles a talented company to bring the story to life and George Harter, MTH founder, serves as emcee and history professor. Harter introduces the show and appears periodically to explain narrative details left out of this compressed version. More than that, Harter provides a fascinating context for what really was a revolutionary show.
As Harter tells us, American musical theater is divided into two broad historical periods — before “Show Boat” and after “Show Boat.” Kern and Hammerstein’s frank depiction of racism on the Mississippi in the late 19th century had simply never been seen on a Broadway stage. And, as Harter describes it, the opening-night audience sat in stunned silence when the curtain came down — only to be followed by a smattering of applause which quickly morphed into a thunderous standing ovation.
This production is more-or-less a concert spiffed up with a limited degree of staging. But the music, even to this day, is so infectious and transporting that any objections you might have to this being less than a “real show” are quickly muted. Some of the tunes, especially “Old Man River,” “Make Believe” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” have a timeless quality.
Based on a sprawling novel by Edna Ferber, the story takes us from the seemingly simple life aboard the Cotton Blossom to the variety theaters of Chicago and ultimately ushers us into the era of motion pictures. It’s a nice snapshot of what has always been true of this country — technological change sweeps away the past, which then is romanticized in fiction and dramatic entertainment.
Andy Garrison, as Capt. Andy Hawks, and Nancy Nail, as his disapproving wife Parthy, have fun in rich character roles. But the central story has to do with their daughter, Magnolia (Elise Poehling) and her ill-fated romance and marriage with Gaylord Ravenenal (Seth Jones), a gambler with a dark past who becomes an actor on the show boat. Poehling and Jones are experienced musical-theater performers who are clearly invested. Jones, it should be said, possesses a crystalline singing voice.
Magnolia and Gaylord are suddenly thrust into starring roles on the show boat after the resident star, Julie (Morgan Walker), is revealed to be of mixed race and married to a white man — which, once upon a time, was illegal in the South. The charismatic Walker sings with unforced authority. The same is true of Enjoli Gavin, who as Queenie rivets our attention every time she steps into the light.
Philip Russell Newman and Abigail Becker, as the married comic actors Frank and Ellie, brighten the stage with smart physical performances. And although he’s a minor character on paper, Joe, the African-American dock worker, sings the most enduring song in the show — “Old Man River,” which in this production is performed ably by Robert McNichols Jr.
That song, more than any other, rises to the level of philosophical reflection. The river, like time itself, is an eternal force that cannot be controlled. It suggests that we, mere humans, are just here for the ride — and that the river will keep on rolling long after we’re gone.
Gary Adams, pianist and conductor, leads a strong ensemble that includes, among standard orchestral instruments, a banjo. All in all, this is a handsomely mounted production showcasing some exceptionally talented performers.
“Show Boat” runs through Nov. 18 at Musical Theater Heritage at Crown Center. Call 816-221-6987 or go to mthkc.com.