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THEATER REVIEW

'Show Boat' Gets Shipshape

October 30, 1998|MARK CHALON SMITH

For sheer emotional momentum, few passages in American musicals compare with Joe's woeful anthem, "Ol' Man River," in "Show Boat."

It's the defining point in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's enduring musical, one that can define a production as well. Charles Mc Cowan nails the song in Fullerton Civic Light Opera's staging with a voice that shifts from resignation one moment to a hammering anger the next.

Mc Cowan's rendition is clearly a highlight, but not the only one in Rob Barron's confident production. "Show Boat," which closes Sunday at Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton, has to be one of this troupe's better offerings in recent seasons.

Of course, Barron and his cast are working with great material. Based on Edna Ferber's novel of the same name, "Show Boat" was first produced by Florenz Ziegfeld in 1927, but not before much trouble and second-guessing.

Ziegfeld at first didn't want anything to do with it. He was worried that the subtheme of miscegenation in the relationship between Julie and Stephen Baker would offend his audience. But, the story goes, he finally gave in after hearing Kern's remarkable score.

After a somewhat pokey start, this show picks up, becoming more colorful and assured as it rolls on. Sharell Martin's costumes are bold and a little comic, and the many sets (uncredited) provide an accommodating atmosphere for the tale of the Cotton Blossom steamer and the performers and black laborers who congregate there at the turn of the century.

The ringleader is Captain Andy, played with avuncular ease by Billy Beadle. He leads the troupe in a lively "Show Boat Parade & Bally-Hoo" once the staging starts to hum.

Soon after, Leslie Tinnaro's Julie digs in to "Can't Help Lovin' dat Man," using her strong voice to turn the popular tune into a sassy ode to devotion, no matter what the costs.

*

Leslie Trayer Harvey and the lanky Ray Hesselink are more into laughs as Ellie and Frank. They combine for a plucky version of "I'll Fall Back on You" and, later, a pleasurable "Goodbye My Lady Love."

As the central lovers Gaylord Ravenal and Magnolia, Jeffrey Rockwell and Jennifer Stein are also agile but in a more romantic way. Their duet, "Make Believe," is sweetly amorous, offered when they first meet and, at the musical's end, when they're finally reunited.

Still, the most satisfying moment comes with Mc Cowan's "Ol' Man River." Much later, Mc Cowan shifts tone with the more buoyant and hopeful "Ah Still Suits Me," but it's "Ol' Man River" that stays with you.

* "Show Boat," Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. 8 p.m. tonight-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $14-$33. Ends Sunday. (714) 879-1732. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

Jeffrey Rockwell: Gaylord Ravenal

Jennifer Stein: Magnolia

Leslie Tinnaro: Julie

Charles Mc Cowan: Joe

Ray Hesselink: Frank

Leslie Trayer Harvey: Ellie

Debbi Ebert: Queenie

Heather Stafford: Parthy Ann Hawkes

Billy Beadle: Captain Andy

A Fullerton Civic Light Opera production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's musical. Directed by Rob Barron. Costumes: Sharell Martin. Lighting: Tom Ruzika. Musical direction: Lee Kreter. Sound: Julie Ferrin. Stage manager: Donna R. Parsons.

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