Show Boat" Sets Sail at Derby Dinner Playhouse

By Paul Moffett

Revivals of musicals can be risky, particularly when the musical is as old as "Show Boat," which had its Broadway debut in 1927. The story can seem dated, the music might be antiquated and the weight of history of the many stagings can drag a show like an anchor.

Add to these formidable potential problems the limitations of staging such a musical in a space roughly fifteen feet on a side and in the round and one might very well be in the position of discussing the matter of the dancing dog – it's not remarkable how well the dog dances, but that it can dance at all.

Producer and Director Bekki Jo Schneider has faced these potential problems squarely, finding solutions both old and new that result in an entertaining evening on the "Show Boat." The usual solutions for reviving an old musical include picking one with great songs and the Jerome Kern / Oscar Hammerstein II classic "Show Boat" of course qualifies, if for no other reason than "Old Man River." The remaining tunes, including "Can't Help Levin' Dat Man," "Bill," and "Only Make Believe," have become much-performed standards as well.

Karin Calabro as Magnolia and Lee Buckholz as Garlord Ravenal in Derby Dinner's production of 'Show Boat'

It also helps enormously to get players who are excellent singers and, once again, Schneider has succeeded. Karin Calabro, who plays Magnolia, has an operatic quality voice that easily handles Kern's melodies. Lee Buckholz as Gaylord Ravenal also does well by his parts, although his voice is somewhat overshadowed by Calabro. Sarah Lynn McGraw sings excellently as Julie, the mulatto.

Perhaps the best voice for the part belongs to Barry Lawrence, as Joe, whose version of "Old Man River" rumbles and rolls along like water, way down deep and low like the river itself.

As for the new solutions, perhaps the most interesting was the use of a Disklavier, a computer-driven player piano, lent to the Playhouse for the show by Conrad of Corydon. Musical director Bill Corcoran, having decided to take a vacation, apparently played his parts to the Disklavier, which were then available at the touch of a button for the show. This solution was certainly inventive and better than having recorded music, but it had its negative effects. The remaining musicians, including Mark McCulloch, bass; Darryel Cotton, drums; Glenn Fisher, synthesizer; and Melody Welsh, winds, performed live with the Disklavier. This gave the music a feel that is familiar to anyone who has heard groups who use sequencers play an ever-so-slightly hurried sensation and an underlying urgency in the vocals, which result from the players' and singers' awareness that the sequenced music will not adjust itself to the moment-to-moment fluctuations common to live performance. Nevertheless, it worked and no one made any mistakes.

As for the plot of the show, it has been around long enough to pass from shocking to acceptable and back to somewhat shocking. At its inception, the fact that it dealt at all with matters of race relations was quite the talk of the town. Nowadays, it's a bit shocking to hear such words as "mulatto" and "miscegenation" used within a musical as a plot device and to be reminded that, not so long ago, miscegenation could result in legal intervention and disgrace. Of more current interest would be the gambling addiction of Gaylord Ravenal, with it's subsequent deleterious effect on his family.

As usual with Derby Dinner productions, maximum use was made of the very limited stage area. The demands of the show occasionally highlighted the physical limits, but the pacing was steady and the changes frequent enough that nothing intruded. Scott Anderson gets the credit for designing the lights and set.

Regular patrons of the Playhouse will be familiar with Bill Hanna, who managed to push his role as the comedic Frank just a bit past the lead, finding competition mostly from another familiar player, Glen Veteto, who handled the role of Capt. Andy very well. The part of the Capt. demands someone who can command the attention of the audience at any point and Veteto is very good at that.

The program notes included the comment that Veteto is apparently moving to Los Angeles after this production, so if you are a fan of his, you should make a point of seeing "Show Boat" in its current run.

Other standouts included Cary Wiger as Windy and Barbara Cullen as Ellie, Frank's partner. Tom Klipsch's costurnes were colorful and captured the feel of the image of the period.

The show runs through August 5. Reservations may be made by calling (812) 288-8281.