Monday, December 07, 2009

Epic Edna - Show Boat & Giant - Musical Reviews

Show Boat - Signature Max Theatre - Arlington, VA (Greater D.C.) - *** (out of 5 stars)
Music by Jerome Kern, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Based on the novel by Edna Ferber, Directed by Eric Schaeffer, Choreographed by Karma Camp
Runs Nov. 10 2009 - Jan. 17 2010

Giant - Signature Max Theatre - Arlington, VA (Greater D.C.) - ***** (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa, Book by Sybille Pearson, Based on the novel by Edna Ferber, Directed by Jonathan Butterell. Choreographed by Ernesto Alonzo Palma
Ended May 31 2009

Signature Theatre (in the Greater Washington D.C. area) seems to be having an Edna Ferber year. First they mounted the world premiere of a new musical adaptation of Edna Ferber's epic novel Giant (above), now they are doing a revival of her epic Show Boat in their small intimate stage space.

I've never been a fan of the story in the classic musical Show Boat (the first musical to fully integrate songs and story, or so musical theatre historian's tell me). While I understand it's a seminal classic and some of the songs are simply ingrained in our heads (try NOT singing "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" or "Ol' Man River" once you've even said those titles in your head?), and I understand that at the time Edna Ferber wrote the story, the Whites and Blacks were still a segregated issue that still proved controversial, I always find myself wanting the story to follow side characters Julie and Steve, a married couple who happens to be secretly bi-racial and had hidden the fact for so long due to Julie's pale skin.

Instead, partway though the show, those two characters disappear and we remain with the White family that owns the titled Show Boat and the Blacks remain mostly in the background to comment on racial injustice while the real drama happens around the White folks.

The new Signature production, downsized in scale for this regional production, manages to present the show without the actual boat, but with a clever set by James Kronzer and lighting by Mark Lanks, it still lacks the overall epicness required for the show. This of course might be my bias since the Show Boat I remember was the 1993 Toronto/Broadway Livent revival directed by Hal Prince that included Broadway legend Elaine Stritch as Parthy. And while downsizing a show sometimes work (see Broadway's current Ragtime revival, the original also having been produced by Livent), sometimes, like Signature's Les Mis from last year, a smaller production can enhance the best qualities of a show, but it can also enhance any flaws or misgivings it may have.

And yet again, I felt captivated into the story of Captain Andy and his Show Boat until Julie and Steve departed and then for the rest of the show, I just kept wondering what happened to them. It didn't help that Steve and Julie were played with captivating performances by Jim Newman and Terry Burrell (respectively, above). While the rest of the cast does a serviceable job, there isn't quite that spark needed to sustain such an epic story.

Only Will Gartshore's Gaylord Ravenal (above with Stephanie Waters as Magnolia Hawk) has the charm and voice to enrapture the entire stage, and his smooth character is buoyed by the smooth actor within.

In the end, there is still much to admire about Signature's downsized Show Boat, but the show needs to roll along way smoother than it does. Instead it just sort of plods along with a cast that isn't always up to the task.

Meanwhile, despite a 4 hour running time, another Edna Ferber story that hints at the racial tensions between the Whites and the Mexicans in Texas during the oil boom but sticks mainly with the White family, and a score by John Michael LaChiusa, someone I tend to respect more than I like, I should be picking apart the new epic musical Giant (it IS called Giant!). Instead, I was enraptured for 3 straight acts, running 4 hours total, and engulfed by the story of Bick, a Texan rancher, Leslie, the girl he woos, marries and starts a family, and the epic 30-year tale of their family on the ranch.

I have gushed over the show already in my original praise/sort-of-review and still have to praise the wonderful ensemble cast, the beautiful direction, the simple but seductive set, and the outstanding lighting that managed to create an epic tale out of a plain wooden stage in the small Signature Max Theatre.

For 4 hours, I was swept away to the land of Texas, ranchers, cowboys and Mexicans, and the sprawling tale of Bick and his family culminates in seeing his teenage kids growing up to mix with the Mexicans in a more progressive and changing future. The tale may be well told now, but the production is subtle and specific and the performances pull you into the emotional core at its heart.

Lewis Cleale and Ashley Robinson are grand as the upstanding Bick and the sketchy Jett (respectively). They form a triangle around Leslie, played with such verve and luminosity by Betsy Morgan (currently in the Broadway revival of A Little Night Music) and she truly centralizes the epic show with her star-making performance.

While I haven't generally been a fan of LaChiusa, who can tend to write challenging scores that lean towards the intellectual and veer over to the boring, here, he strikes a perfect balance between a complex score that still remains melodic and soaring with styles that range from old country, to Mexican, to operatic, each in keeping with tale being told.

The epic show is not for everyone, and I can see many people seeing this non-commercial gem as "boring" and "slow", but while I tend to lean towards commercial theatre with an appreciation for the artsy, I found Giant was a beautiful artistic tableau of Edna Ferber's giant tale of Texas (where as they say, everything's bigger in Texas) that I found myself mesmerized by the whole giant show.

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