Show Boat

Thru May 22, 2016

Show Boat is a 1927 musical, with music by Jerome Kern and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on Edna Ferber’s best-selling novel, the musical follows the lives of the performers, stagehands and dock workers on the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi Show Boat, over 40 years, from 1887 to 1927. Its themes include racial prejudice and tragic, enduring love.

Show Boat  broke new ground in musical theatre, as many regard the production as the Granddaddy of Musical Theatre. Show Boat boldly portrayed racial issues, and was the first racially integrated musical, in that both black and white performers appeared and sang on stage together. Show Boat was the first Broadway musical to seriously depict an interracial marriage, as in Ferber’s original novel, and to feature a character of mixed race who was “passing” for white. The show also generated controversy for the historical portrayal of blacks working as laborers and servants in the 19th-century South, and the use of the “N” word in the lyrics.This was written boldly, in a time where singing the word “gay”, simply meant being happy. But the message of the show was buoyed by an impeccable score. Most notably the famous “Ol  Man River”.

The powerful cast of 61 do incredible justice to this iconic beast of a show. If you are unaware of the mission of Near West Theatre, you should know that the cast is composed of people who have never been on stage before, people who do shows intermittently, and certified veterans. This combination of human resources, which in this production range from the ages of 7 to 69, creates incredible bonds and produces productions full of excitement, commitment, artistry and pure joy. This production is no different.

Providing comedic relief and running the proceedings on the boat, are Cap’n Andy Hawkes ( Gary Samarin) and Parthy Ann Hawkes (Beth Rene Bamberger). These two provide a great presence. Samarin with his antics, and Bamberger being a force of nature trying to handle the situations thrown at her.

This cast can boast some phenomenal voices, and two of them are beautifully delivered by Ryann Sefcik and Devon Turchan, (Magnolia Hawkes and Gaylord Ravenal), respectively. These two provide soaring voices, along with deft acting. Truly a treat to watch their love story play out.

Providing fire and sizzle to the mix, are the dynamic and vocally charged duo of Josh Landis (Frank Schultz) and Cory Markowitz ( Ellie May Chipley). These two are like a vaudeville Fred and Ginger. They provide lots of smile and high energy dance numbers that are a complete delight.

As a couple, Sam Pantalone as Steve Baker, and Jennifer Browning as Julie LaVerne, handle one of the pivotal issues at play here perfectly. Pantalone provides a loving caring husband, who even takes to extreme measures to protect his wife, showing raw courage. LaVerne is on fire in this production. Her character is a blazing furnace of intensity. Sometimes life sucks, and for LaVerne, when her character is alone, drinking too much, and desperate, she pours her heart and soul into the signature song “Bill” with beautifully dramatic effect.

Jordan Powell as Pete, is a brave actor who is given the distinct unpleasure portraying a racist. I can’t imagine this was easy, but this young man delivers an honest and solid depiction of reality. Racism exists, and it still does. If you hate his character, which I did, then that means he did a great job. Nasira Mah-Jabeen gives Queenie life. Her smile and presence is a gift to the production. And that girl can sang. Kate Atherton as Kim Ravenal, provides a fabulous Charleston number that rocks. Hidden in a wig that transforms her back in time to provide a high energy performance.

The rest of the cast is a conglomeration of energy and drive, and pure delight. Watching so many people experience and inhabit this epic musical is a joy.

The Production Team is firing on all cylinders. Director Bob Navis Jr. helms this production with great clarity, and brave focus on the issues being addressed, as well as the musicality. Assistant Director Kelcie Nicole Dugger provided a professional guiding hand as well.Stage Manager & Co-Production Manager Ryan Wolf  called a great show, and coordinated the scene changes that made the evening move swiftly. Assistant Musical Director Rachel Woods led a dynamic orchestra, actually, one of the best I have ever heard at Near West Theatre. The orchestra is on fire. Choreographer Josh Landis provides great dances for the cast to dig into, and adeptly portrays the period moves with precision. Set Designer Laura Carlson Tarantowski, who has created her last and brilliant set design, as she moves on to Oberlin College, once again creates a beautiful and epic design. Sarah Russell did an extraordinary job of costuming this musical. Ripe, appropriate and fine-looking creations. Every one of the 61 cast members was given attention.Josh Padgett leads as Technical Director & Co-Production Manager, and helms a tight and gifted team. Assistant Technical Director & Video Designer provided great execution, especially during the time travel sequence to move the play forward in years. Charge Scenic Artist Jenny Hitmar Shankland is a gifted and talented professional who strikes gold once again with her skills. Lighting Designer Rob Wachala brings his A game to the proceedings as well. Sound Designer Josh Caraballo creates a great balance of orchestra and stage in the theatre.

The rest of the stage crew and spot operators are right on target and deserve praise for their behind the scenes work.

Near West Theatre should be proud. And from the fact that they have had Sell Out audiences, and performances that are on their way to being full, is a testament to the production of a musical that is hardly ever produced in the Cleveland area.

Kevin Kelly