Signature Theatre Show BoatBy Mark Lee Adams • Nov 23rd, 2009 • Category: Reviews
Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA
Through January 17th
Reviewed Opening Night, November 17th, 2009
This will be a somewhat different approach to writing this review of Show Boat. It is this reviewers belief that when writing a review, I will write to those potential theatre-goers who are looking for a show and want to know my take on the performance and the show. Realizing not every show will appeal to every viewer, I’m writing to those who know a previous version of Show Boat as well as those who may know nothing of the show. Show Boat isn’t produced very often as it was originally written with a very large cast of 70+ and a huge set, as the title implies.
Signature Theatre revives the monolith of the Classic American musical Show Boat. Knowing the Signature Theatre space and Eric Schaeffer, its Artistic Director and Director of this revival, I began to wonder just how Mr. Schaeffer was going to stage this show. In this attempt, I decided to wipe clean the previous interpretations of this show, to view this play as a new production. Oops! One can’t quite go down that road. The story told is of love, yes, but also of our American society back in the days of the 1880’s to the days of the plays origin, 1927 and with our way of treating our fellow Americans. Yes, a touchy subject, but none-the-less one in which needs to be told over and over and over again. After all, we must never forget our past mistakes or else we may never learn from them.
A valiant rendition bringing the wonderful songs as the riveting Ol’Man River, Can’t Help Lovin ‘Dat Man, Make Believe, and Bill by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. As I sat watching the show, an audience member would lightly hum the tunes, I’m sure, were her favorites. I took a glance around the audience and noticed quite a number of viewers doing the same, each with a smile on their faces. I too fell into the trap of comparison of previous versions, but quickly turned my mind to the show at hand.
So now I must say the show itself had a dark and imposing ominous tension about it at times. At other times I felt the exuberance of youth and love mixed with the gaiety of the life of a Show Boat’s ‘Cap’n Andy’ (Harry A. Winter) and his wife ‘Parthy’ (Kimberly Schraf), both were the solid foundation from which the productions younger actors could feed off of and build with.
The riverboat gambler ‘Gaylord Ravenal’ (Will Gartshore) was dashing enough and does he ever have a voice. It was a pleasure to watch both his acting and his singing. I especially thought he was one of the few actors, Harry Winter and Kimberly Schraf included, who displayed the nuances of acceptability with regard to the separation of race in their characters society along with the hard edge of non-acceptability. The love between this gambler and focus of his love, ‘Magnolia’ (Stephanie Waters) was riveting for me. I did want to see a bit more frolic with Magnolia as she sang and danced with her friends on the dock.
Terry Burrell, in the role of ‘Julie’, was a vocal wonder with her rendition of the song, Bill. (Jim Newman) ‘Julie’s’ was so protective of his love for his wife, their chemistry was on the mark. I also enjoyed their stylistic acting in the play within the play. Well done!
(VaShawn McIlwain), in the role of ‘Joe’ was masterful in his singing of the familiar Ol’Man River but I didn’t feel the connection between his character and his characters wife ‘Queenie’, played and sung movingly by Delores King Williams.
‘Frank and Ellie’ played by Bobby Smith and Sandy Bainum were a highlight of the show for me. Their comedy is brilliant and their dancing was perfect.
The ensemble was strong and vibrant. Standout performances were given by, Helen Hedman, Hannah Willman, Susan Derry & Matt Conner. I felt some of the characterizations were over the top. They weren’t real enough for this production, a stark “On the Waterfront” visual-touch of a production. Some of the actors were asked to play many roles in this show and as hard of a task as this is for any actor, one must stay true to each character. If not, their characters meld into one and thus aren’t as believable in any.
Sightlines were an issue if you were sitting on the sides of the thrust stage. Some of the crowd scenes blocked views of the main characters, but not to the point of missing a lot. The choreography was rather simple in this production. Nothing stood out for me. I also wanted to see more of ‘Queenie & Joe’, they both were placed either high up in the rafters or on the steps at times when I would’ve liked to have seen them downstage. Maybe a tweak of the lighting so as not to mask the dance numbers to show.
Knowing the space at Signature as I do and as anyone and everyone who’s been at a show at Signature Theatre also knows, nobody should be surprised here. This IS Signature Theatre. Signature’s signature, if you will allow me, I was not at all disappointed with this production. I left the theatre with a warm heart and smile on my face.
Artistic Director’s Notes
One doesn’t think too much about a river. At times it glides. Other times it’s rough and choppy. It floods on occasion…but it always keeps rolling along. In Show Boat, the river changes each character’s life. It’s a metaphor for each character’s emotional journey each and every one of these spirited souls goes on. Some never leave, others run away – but the ever-changing river makes a huge impact on each one of them.
It’s only fitting, at this time in our country, that Signature presents a brand new interpretation of this classic American musical. this how, written in 1927 by Kern and Hammerstein and based on the 1925 book Show Boat by Edna Ferber, was truly revolutionary for its time – but what is even more surprising is how revolutionary it is today. Performances during the original tryout at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. ran more than four hours. Though it’s shorter now (we promise), the musical comes full circle in this new adaptation for the Signature stage, featuring new orchestration by the esteemed Jonathan Tunick, and it has lost none of its extraordinary beauty or power. This how – the first musical ever to deal with real social issues, politics and family dynamics, examined over the course of five decades of changing a changing American landscape – deserves to be rediscovered by a new generation of audiences. I am so proud to reintroduce Show Boat to Washington as Signature’s 100th production.
While Show Boat is about a great number of things – prejudice, change, growth, family and forgiveness – there is one vital thing that connects this masterpiece together: a river. A river tht challenges us to change, a river that forces us places unknown and a river that keeps us moving in new directions. A river can change your life forever.
Eric Schaeffer, Artistic Director
Photos by Chris Mueller and Scott Suchman.
- Queenie: Delores King Williams
- Joe: VaShawn Mcllwain
- Workers: Mardee Bennett, Yolanda Denise Bryant, Sean Maurice Lynch, Kevin McAllister, Aaron Reader, Tiffany Wharton
- Steve: Jim Newman
- Pete: Chris Sizemore
- Belles: Susan Derry, Helen Hedman, Hannah Williams
- Beaux: Sam Ludwig, J. Fred Sniffman
- Windy: Matt Conner
- Parthy: Kimberly Schraf
- Cap’n Andy: Harry A. Winter
- Ellie: Sandy Bainum
- Frank: Bobby Smith
- Julie: Terry Burrell
- Steve: Jim Newman
- Vallon: J. Fred Shiffman
- Gaylord Ravenal: Will Gartshore
- Magnolia: Stephanie Waters
- Rubberface: Sam Ludwig
- Backwoods Man: J. Fred Shiffman
- Jeb: Sam Ludwig
- Ethel: Yolanda Denise Bryant
- Landlady: Helen Hedman
- Mother Superior: Helen Hedman
- Young Kim: Rachel Boyd, Anna Nowalk (played in rotation)
- Jim: J. Fred Shiffman
- Jake: Matt Connor
- Leroy: Sam Ludwig
- Charlie: Jim Newman
- Lottie: Susan Derry
- Dottie: Hannah Willman
- Drunk: Chris Sizemore
- Old Lady: Hellen Hedman
- Older Kim: Hannah Willman
- Understudies: Queenie, Yolanda Denise Bryant, Capt. Andy Hawks, Matt Conner, Ellie, Susan Derry, Parthy, Helen Hedman, Ravenal, Sam Ludwig, Joe, Kevin MacAllister, Magnolia, Hannah Wilman, Male Swings: Patrick Cragin, Michael Gigante, Jobari Parker-Namdar, Female Swings: Maura Hogan, Kimberly Sherbach, Shante Corrina Tabb
- Scenic Design: James Kronzer
- Costume Design: Kathleen Geldard
- Lighting Design: Mark Lanks
- Sound Design: Matt Rowe
- New York Casting: Stuart Howard Casting
- Production Stage Manager: Kerry Epstein
- Assistant Stage Manager: Julie Meyer
- Production Manager: Timothy H. O’Connell
- Assistant Music Director: Jonathan Tuzman
- Associate Choreographer and Assistant Director: Matthew Gardiner
- Orchestrations By: Jonathan Tunik
- Music Direction By: Jon Kalbfleisch
- Choreography By: Karma Camp
- Directed by Eric Schaeffer
- Music Director/Conductor: Jon Kalbfleisch
- Flute/Clarinet: Ben Bokor
- Oboe/ Clarinet: Lee Lachman
- Clarinet: Annie Ament
- Bassoon: Ben Granya
- Horn: Amy Smith
- Trumpets: Dan Lindgren, Brent Madison,
- Trombone: Matt Maslanka
- Percussion: Lee Hinkle
- Violins: Jeff Thurston, Andrea Vercoe
- Viola: Cathy Amoury
- Cello: Aaron Rider
- Bass: Eric Seay
Disclaimer: Signature Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/4350.
Mark Lee Adams has been involved in theatre for over 40 years in the local Washington DC Metro area as well as NYC and London England. Mark has performed at the Dramatist Guild Theatre on Broadway, at The Dorothy Strelsin Theatre Off-Broadway. His credits include work in many local theatres as well: The Folger Theatre Group, Arena Stage, New Playwrights Theatre, 7th Street Players, The Keegan Theatre, The American Century Theatre, The Journeyman Theatre, ASTA Theatre, The Hayloft Dinner Theatre (Associate Producer), The Lazy Susan Theatre, Discovery Channels, "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" (Frankenstein) with Donald Sutherland. London, England credits include work at: The Duke of York Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre, The Questors Theatre, The British Embassy Players. Mark is a graduate of The Drama Studio, London, England. Mark is also a narrator of audio books for Gildan Audio: “True North”, by Bill George; “Never Give Up”, by Tedy Bruschi and “Five Minds for the Future”, by Howard Gardner among them. Mark currently teaches Advanced Acting at The Little Theatre of Alexandria and still performs locally in many theatres.