I had read a few highly mediocre review of “Show Boat” at the Signature Theatre, but tried to ignore them when I went to see the show last night for at least three reasons: you can’t rely on reviews in general, “Show Boat” is one of my favorite musicals, and the Signature generally puts on first class productions. Unfortunately, this time the critics are right and this particular Show Boat will simply laze along the river until it closes in mid-January.
The production has so many problems. First, although there are some strong performances (Joe, Queenie, Gaylord Ravenel, Frank and Ellie), two of the most important roles (Nola and Julie) were poorly cast and are poorly performed, with each of the two actors showing lack of (or wrong) emotions, struggling to stay on pitch, with too much vibrato in their voices. Second, the orchestration, so important for this show, is somehow off – a little too tinny perhaps, not rich enough, and not sufficiently integrated into the show. Third, the staging, for “Show Boat” is minimalist – for example, there is no boat, putting this production about half way between a full production and a concertized version of the show. Fourthly, a couple of good songs were cut, and some of the dialogue was rewritten (without success). Fifth, the production is totally devoid of all drama – a show that normally absorbs the attention of so many different emotions (issues of segregation in the south, and in Chicago; difficulties of making a living in early 20th century America; addictions of drink and gambling; laws against mixed racial marriages and relationships; “passing” for white and being outed; parents and children; spousal relationships; life upon the wicked stage) is devoid of any emotion, cold, bland, disjointed.
“Show Boat” is a wonderful show, combining great musical tunes with a high sense of drama, showing post-civil war America trying to grapple with racial and socio-economic issues. If the music is sub-par, and the drama utterly lacking, what do you have left? Memories of better performances, a few tunes that keep running through your head, and hopes for more successful “Show Boat”s in the future. The cast of this show seemed so stale, as if they know they have a loser on their hands; how will they keep going for six more weeks?