`Show Boat' rolls along admirably

Musical: A few shortcomings aren't enough to diminish the luster of the Chesapeake Music Hall production.

Arundel Live

October 18, 2001|By Mary Johnson | By Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For those of you trolling for a classic, the Cotton Blossom will remain docked at the Chesapeake Music Hall in Annapolis, as Show Boat plays there through Nov. 18.

The Cotton Blossom is the boat in this landmark musical with a score by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.

The musical, which debuted in 1927, forever changed the concept of the American musical theater.

Show Boat was the first musical play. It offers a strong story and well-drawn characters using the musical score to advance the plot. Based on Edna Ferber's novel of the same name, the musical spans more than 40 years in the lives of show folk on the Cotton Blossom.

The story focuses on Magnolia Hawks and Gaylord Ravenal from their meeting on the showboat through their marriage, breakup and reunion on the boat. It also tells the story of secondary characters - mulatto Julie LaVerne and her husband, Steve.

The American Theatre Critics Association voted Show Boat third in a list of the 25 most significant musicals of the 20th century, an accolade that most of us would support given its songs, which include "Make Believe," "Why Do I Love You?" "Ol' Man River," "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" and "Bill," along with the near-operatic "You Are Love."

Such a great score deserves great singers, and director Sherry Kay Anderson (also CMH owner) has found a number of them who do justice to the score.

In addition to directing the show, Anderson serves as choreographer and costume designer, and helped to design and build the set. Anita O'Connor does her usual excellent job as music director.

The story is set in 1887 on the Mississippi River at Natchez, where Cap'n Andy runs his show and handles all problems that arise, including those caused by his bossy wife, Parthy.

Parthy's protectiveness of her daughter Magnolia causes her to disapprove of Magnolia's friendship with Julie LaVerne.

Serious subjects including racism and the prohibition of interracial marriage were rarely encountered in Broadway musicals of the 1920s or even later. Such subjects are intelligently dealt with in Show Boat, along with problems of gambling, alcoholism and troubled marriages.

Bringing life to these issues at Chesapeake Music Hall is a cast headed by fine actor and singer Jason Fulmer as Gaylord Ravenal, the elegant gambler who gets away from his gambling debts by accepting Cap'n Andy's leading-man job offer and soon falls in love with Magnolia.

Fulmer has a warm baritone that does justice to the best songs in the show, including "Where's the Mate for Me?" "Why Do I Love You?" "Make Believe," and "You Are Love."

Although at times, especially in later scenes, Liz Hester gives a compelling performance as Magnolia, her acting is not up to Fulmer's level. Hester, at age 19, seems to have difficulty overcoming a self-conscious stiffness that is more pronounced in scenes with the relaxed Fulmer.

Lynn Garrelson is strong in her portrayal of the tragic Julie, but she lacks the vocal power to do justice to the role's great songs, "Can't Help Lovin' That Man," and "Bill."

Ron Squeri brings humor and warmth to his portrayal of Cap'n Andy, and Kathryn Smith is properly spirited in the role of his wife, Parthy.

Shannon Benil portrays frustrated actress Ellie with charm and good humor, and she brings high energy to her dancing and singing.

Playing Ellie's partner is David B. Reynolds, filling in as Frank Schultz for the ailing Charlie Rodgers. Reynolds gives his usual powerful acting, singing and dancing performance.

Other noteworthy performers include Jim Ballard, who sings an acceptable "Ol' Man River" as stevedore Joe, and Craig Beatty, who gives a compelling performance as Julie's husband, Steve. Beatty also plays two other roles, Jeb and Jake.

Despite what the two female leads lack in singing ability, Show Boat is well worth seeing for the landmark show it is and for the many fine performances in CMH's production.

Chesapeake Music Hall is at 339 Busch's Frontage Road,Annapolis, off U.S. 50. For information on the dinner theater menu, show dates, times and tickets, call 410-626-7515 or 800-406-0306, or check the theater's Web site at www.chesapeakemusichall.com.

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