Show Boat, the 1927 Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II collaboration, is a seminal work in the history of the American musical. Based on Edna Ferber’s bestselling novel, the show integrated its book, music and lyrics in service of a story with serious themes – racial inequality, laws against mixed-race marriage, alcoholism and gambling addiction, a man’s abandonment of his family. It also marked the first time a large cast of white and black actors performed together in a musical.
And that score? Then and now, it is a glorious one, yielding such familiar songs as Make Believe, Ol’ Man River, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, You Are Love, Why Do I Love You and Bill.
Stage Door Theatre in Coral Springs has just opened its holiday production of Show Boat, a large-scale undertaking in an era when small-cast, one-set shows dominate, at least as much for economic reasons as artistic ones. Stage Door’s production features a cast of 25, costumes well into the hundreds and multiple sets, most notably designer Dustin Hamilton’s rendition of the Cotton Blossom, the floating theater where various characters meet, fall in love and fall apart.
Director Dan Kelley and choreographer Chrissi Ardito deliver the show’s drama, comedy and dance with flair, and Kelley has cast leads with powerful voices. Under David Nagy’s musical direction, the actors sing to tracks orchestrated by David Cohen. That’s hardly ideal, as the singers have to match the unyielding pace of the recorded music instead of having a give-and-take with live musicians. But given the size of the cast, the choice is understandable.
Standouts in that large cast are Colleen Amaya as Magnolia Hawks, the clarion-voiced daughter of the showboat’s owners; Todd MacIntyre as Magnolia’s suitor, gambler Gaylord Ravenal; Deirdra Grace as the ship’s cook, Queenie, who sings a chilling Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’; Edwin Watson as Queenie’s husband, Joe, the deep-voiced singer of Ol’ Man River; Sally Bondi as Magnolia’s judgmental, comically domineering mother, Parthy Ann; Eric Weaver and Rose Ouellette as the Cotton Blossom’s featured dance team; and, in a short-but-sweet turn, Nicolette Violet Sweeney as Magnolia and Gaylord’s grown daughter, Kim, a peppy ’20s Broadway star.
Sheira Feuerstein has a formidable (at times almost overwhelming) voice as the tragic mixed-race singer Julie LaVerne, but her acting is almost melodramatic, as though she were in one of the Cotton Blossom’s formulaic shows. Richard Brundage is likeable enough as Captain Andy, but his low-key approach to the role almost guarantees that the vibrant Bondi will overpower him – which she does at every turn.
What needs some urgent attention is Liza Mascaro’s sound design. The balance between the live vocals and recorded music was sometimes wildly off at Wednesday’s matinee, so much so that lyrics were unintelligible. And when the lyricist is Hammerstein, that’s a crime.