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Saturday, January 21, 2017

A Lighter Show Boat Docks at Toby’s

Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
Ever since Show Boat debuted in 1927, controversy followed it.  Was this a racist musical or was it a musical about racism?

On one hand, it was the first show on Broadway where black and white individuals performed together. It also drew attention to miscegenation laws and the horrors such laws inflict on people.

On the other hand, the first production of Show Boat featured two white women playing black characters—Julie and Queenie—in blackface.  And it also depicted a multitude of offensive stereotypes about black people and racial slurs that were common during the 1877-1927 period during which the show’s plot took place.

Controversy or not, Show Boat, with music by Jerome Kern and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and based on Edna Ferber’s best-selling novel of the same name, remains a musical classic.  The iteration of Show Boat now playing at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, is a talent-rich production whereby the superb cast is attired in magnificently detailed period costumes that were designed by AT Jones & Company.

Co-Directors Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick (who also choreographed the production) made the decision to trim the sprawling show to a manageable level.  Several songs and scenes were cut, and with them, much of the offensive dialogue and slurs.  Serious themes, such as abandonment, gambling and poverty remain woven throughout the fabric of the plot.  #hocoarts

This is not to say the Toby’s version was completely cleansed of racial tensions. The N-word was spoken early on to remind the audience of what race relations were like during this Jim Crow era.  

Miscegenation laws factor in a key sub-plot. A married couple, Steven Baker, who is white (played convincingly by Justin Calhoun) and Julie LaVerne (Julia Lancione) who is of mixed race, were the victims of these laws. The tense confrontation between the local sheriff played powerfully by David Bosley-Reynolds and Steven and Julie—the two leading performers on the Cotton Blossom, a show boat that traveled up and down the Mississippi River—is one of the better dramatic scenes. 

Though Steven convinces the sheriff that he “has Negro blood in him” and is backed up by the troupe, they are forced to cease performing with the white performers on the Cotton Blossom because of segregation.

Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
Despite the serious issues, Ms. Orenstein and Mr. Minnick deftly guide Show Boat with a lighter touch than the original, resulting in more laughs than gasps, and the classic songs including the ballads “Ol’ Man River,” “Only Make Believe” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” were retained.

Ms. LaVerne as Julie sparkles and her perfor
mance in “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” is moving.  Mr. Calhoun, in playing Steven, a not-so-good actor on the Cotton Blossom but thinks he is, creates some fine comedic moments. 

Robert John Biedermann 125 effectively plays Captain Andy Hawks, the patriarch of the Cotton Blossom, which is the hub for which the subplots revolve.  Mr. Biedermann knows how to deliver a punch line with the best of them and excels throughout the show.  His repartee with the ultra-talented Jane C. Boyle, who plays his stern, humorless, domineering wife Parthy, is hilarious and provides effective comic relief sprinkled among the dramatic sequences in the plot.

The Hawks’ daughter, Magnolia, is played by Abby Middleton. Magnolia falls in love with a riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal played by Russell Rinker and marries him against Parthy’s wishes.  After subsequently moving to Chicago and succeeding at first with his gambling, the financial bottom falls out for Gaylord, and he abandons Magnolia and their newborn daughter Kim.  Gaylord returns two decades later and the couple reconciles as the show ends. Kim (Allie O’Donnell) becomes a successful performer in her own right.  

Ms. Middleton’s gorgeous soprano voice and Mr. Rinker’s solid tenor are on display in the beautiful “Only Make Believe” and “Why Do I Love You.”  Her solo, the reprise of “Can’t Help Lovin Dat Man,” and his solo “Where’s the Mate For Me” are outstanding.

Marquis White, who plays Joe, a dockworker delivers the iconic, slow-moving “Ol’ Man River” in a goose bump-inducing, knockout performance that showcases his stellar bass voice.

Joe’s wife, strong-minded Queenie, a cook on the boat, is played flawlessly by Samantha Deininger.  She demonstrates spot-on comedic and acting skills, and her mezzo-soprano vocals stand out in “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’” and in the moving duet with Mr. White, “I Still Suits Me.”

Other performers on the Cotton Blossom include Frank Schultz and Ellie May Chipley, played by Jeffrey Shankle and Elizabeth Rayca, respectively. They also deliver comic moments.  The married couple becomes successful and generous with their success.  Their duet, “Goodbye My Lady Love” is a joy.

Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
The remainder of the ensemble perform very well in support of the leads and in production numbers.  Mr. Minnick’s choreography is creative in designing several dance sequences that play well on Toby’s in-the-round stage.

Ross Scott Rawlings and his six-piece orchestra do a splendid job in performing Mr. Kern’s score and allowing the vocalists to shine without drowning them out.   

Mark Smedley’s sound design is perfectly executed as all dialogue and music are heard with clarity.
David A. Hopkins who designed the effective lighting effects also designed the set. Elements of a 19th century show boat are seen overhead with detailed lattice work and fences at the two balconies denoting the upper deck of the boat.  In addition, many props and set pieces are effectively utilized to portray the era that include carts, sacks of flour, bales of cotton, and miscellaneous furniture for scene changes spanning 40 years.

The trimmed-down version of Show Boat at Toby’s manages to provide the audience with sufficient flavor from the time when segregation and miscegenation laws ruled the day without dragging it out.  It also demonstrates the strength and fragility of relationships over a swath of time through an excellent score and potent dialogue.

Get your tickets to hop on Show Boat. This is an entertaining, well-directed production performed by a talented company that is sure to please.  

Running time. Two hours and 40 minutes with an intermission.

Show Boat plays through March 19 at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets can be purchased by calling the Box Office at 410-7390-8311 or 1-800-88TOBYS or online .

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