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August 5, 2011

TT: Small boat, big show

In today's Wall Street Journal I report on two out-of-town musical-comedy revivals, Goodspeed Musicals' Show Boat and the Ogunquit Playhouse's The Music Man. Here's an excerpt.

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Everybody wants to do "Show Boat." Who wouldn't? Any musical whose score is festooned with songs as potent as "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "Make Believe," "Ol' Man River" and "Why Do I Love You?" is by definition a crowd-pleaser. But "Show Boat" is also a three-hour-long extravaganza whose elaborate sets include a 19th-century Mississippi River excursion boat and a fancy Chicago nightclub. That spells big bucks, and now that America's financially beleaguered regional theater companies are increasingly turning to small-scale productions of sure-fire shows, revivals of "Show Boat" have become fewer and farther between. When Arlington's Signature Theatre sought in 2009 to beat the shifting odds with a slimmed-down version of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein classic, the unhappy result was a cramped-looking, ill-sung staging that failed to convey the show's near-operatic feel.

GOODSPEED.jpgNow Goodspeed Musicals has triumphantly solved the "Show Boat" problem. Rob Ruggiero's heart-lifting new revival succeeds in shoehorning "Show Boat" onto a very small stage without compromising its expansive spirit in any way. The cast is superior, the direction and choreography excitingly immediate, and Michael Schweikardt's compact yet rich-looking sets deserve a prize for sheer ingenuity. Moreover, this "Show Boat" benefits immeasurably from being performed in Goodspeed's century-old 398-seat auditorium. Not only does it overlook the Connecticut River, but the interior is a dead ringer for the inside of a turn-of-the-century show boat, and Mr. Ruggiero has taken maximum advantage of that serendipitous fact by staging "Show Boat" in such a way as to make you feel as though you're actually on board the Cotton Blossom. No sooner do you see Joe (David Aron Damane) polishing the brass rails of the balcony than you surrender happily to the illusion, and from then on you know you're in the best of hands....

In addition to being fine actors, everyone in the cast can sing, not just well enough but outstandingly. Top honors go to the warm and affecting Magnolia of Sarah Uriarte Berry, with the mahogany-voiced Mr. Damane no more than half a step behind....

Unlike "Show Boat, the perennially popular "The Music Man" is all but impossible to foul up. While a creative director can do imaginative things with Meredith Willson's best-known show, as Bill Rauch's non-traditional high-concept Oregon Shakespeare Festival revival proved two seasons ago, all you really need to do to make "The Music Man" work is hire two good stars, put together a strong chorus and play everything straight. Do that and you're sure to send 'em home happy. The Ogunquit Playhouse's new "Music Man," which makes use of Thomas Lynch's old-fashioned storybook sets for Susan Stroman's 2000 Broadway revival, is unabashedly traditional in just about every way, starting with Ray Roderick's briskly efficient staging. The result is a solid and satisfying summer-resort musical, just the kind of show that will delight the kids (and their parents) after a long, hard day on the beach....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted August 5, 2011 6:44 PM

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