- The Washington Times - Friday, November 20, 2009

Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly, I gotta love “Show Boat” ‘til I die/Can’t help lovin’ dat show of mine.

Oh, listen sister, I really love the Sig’s “Show Boat” — but I can’t tell you why: The set evokes not a gingerbread-house-fancy showboat but rather an old barn with peeling paint; some of the actors seem either out of breath or miscast; and director Eric Schaeffer’s cuts streamline the musical, but often at the expense of character development and richness of plot.

The 1927 Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II musical, with its lavish score, is almost an embarrassment of riches — everything from infectious ditties in three-quarter time and ragtime to heart-wrenching ballads and soaring operatic duets, not to mention musical numbers just begging for the Florenz Ziegfeld over-the-top treatment. With its depiction of racism, gambling addicts, class stratification and sweeping change in America at the turn of the century, the ambitious show took the musical from light entertainment into the modern age.

Magnolia (the crystalline-voiced Stephanie Waters) is the talented young daughter of Cotton Blossom showboat operators Cap’n Andy (a fine and flirty Harry Winter) and Parthy (a perfectly sour Kimberly Schraf). “Show Boat” is a love story between Magnolia and the charming gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Will Gartshore, who seemed winded and subdued in the first part before gaining momentum in Act 2 with powerhouse renditions of “Make Believe” and “You Are Love”). Their story spans the sparkly early days of their courtship aboard the Cotton Blossom in 1887 through the flush years of 1893 Chicago — beautifully rendered in wistful tableaux evoking the fun and hopefulness of the World’s Fair — through somber times in the 1900s on up to 1927 and the dawning of the Jazz Age.

Mr. Schaeffer whittles all this down to a swift-moving two hours and 40 minutes, and the amalgam of the 1927 original, the 1946 Broadway revival and a 2005 version by Nic Muni for the Berne Opera seems more of a collage of American cultural history than a satisfying production of an influential musical.

Some moments are unhurried, but many highlights are either unexplored or go by in a blur. For example, Joe’s (VaShawn Mcllwain) singing of “Old Man River” should be a showstopper; instead, the song is a technical triumph rather than an emotional one. As for the song-and-dance duo Ellie (Sandy Bainum) and Frank (Bobby Smith), these excellent performers seem both rushed and extraneous — and when the spotlight is thrust on them, the set and the lights cut them off at the knees.

While integrating the black characters more fully into the musical’s action is an inspired choice, sometimes the drudgery and bigotry they routinely face is depicted so vividly that when they break into broad grins and start singing and cavorting, you think, “What do they have to dance about?”

The edits in effect divide the show into a “Happy Act” and a “Downer Act.” The first part bursts with crisp, exuberant renditions of “Cotton Blossom,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “You Are Love,” but the second half is mostly dreary — the exception being Julie’s (Terry Burrell) ravaged, ravishing delivery of the song “Bill,” which expresses the depths of poverty to which life and love can expose you.

Despite all its faults, however, “Show Boat” is about as difficult to resist as a slice of mile-high pie. Jon Kalbfleisch’s 15-piece orchestra is in top form, and Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations bring out the lushness and variety in Hammerstein’s music. The fact that “Show Boat” can still move and entertain despite decades of cutting, rearranging and “improvements” is a testament to its grandeur.

★★★
WHAT: “Show Boat,” music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the novel by Edna Ferber
WHERE: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Jan. 17.
TICKETS: $52 to $76
PHONE: 703/573-7328
WEB SITE: www.signature-theatre.org
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS