You could, should you decide to disregard the disappointment of the rest of the show, judge Village Theatre’s revival of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat (which runs through July 3 in Issaquah and reopens in Everett on July 10) strictly on the singing—not an entirely absurd proposition, given that there are, in this production, 26 numbers (purists will miss only the excised “Hey Feller!” and “I Might Fall Back on the You”) and many of them are among the greatest ever written for the American musical theater.
If you’re going to spend almost three hours watching nearly 50 years in the lives of a troupe of Mississippi River entertainers, you couldn’t ask for a better way to hear their emotions. The orchestra sounds smashing and the Village cast boasts the best ensemble of voices to grace a local production in quite some time (Kathryn Van Meter’s Ellie is the only weak spot). Count me among the cynical not expecting an “Ol’ Man River” worth writing home about. But Ekello Harrid Jr., as the vessel’s handyman Joe, booms the magnificent highs and lows of a man “tired of livin’ and scared of dyin’” with memorable force. Lovely Cayman Ilika’s Julie, the boat’s leading lady ruined by the revelation of her half-black heritage, delivers a dreamy “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” then in Act Two caresses a low, lustrous “Bill” that will knock you right out of your chair. Even the central pair of lovers, Magnolia (Megan Chenovick) and the unfortunately named rascal Gaylord (Richard Todd Adams), usually both mired in sappy trilling, put across their operetta-ish avowals of “Make Believe” in thrillingly plush tones, their top notes pleasing instead of piercing.
But Showboat is about more than the music. Kern and, especially, Hammerstein (who wrote the book and lyrics and directed the first production), changed not only how a musical could be constructed but what it could do and say using that new construction: Issues of class, race, and the rewards and ravages of time commingle. Director Jerry Dixon knows this, surely, but isn’t able to prove it. The songs aren’t bolstered by a believable life outside of them—some faulty choreography fuels a failed attempt to link the decades through the music and movement of the black community—and most of the staging within the numbers lacks the subtleties of heartrending human suffering. Ilika’s Julie, for instance, ceases being moving the second she stops singing and starts moving; we don’t feel the weight of her sacrifice. And when the curtain rises in Act One on a handful of black stevedores and their women singing “Colored folk work while the white men play” you’d be right to presume that, oh, perhaps working while the white men play isn’t the best of situations—but the chorus here is smiling because they’ve been given the opening number of a landmark 1927 musical.
It’s still a landmark worth sampling in this staging but you’ll have to close your eyes and make believe if you want proof of why this remarkable show just keeps rolling along more than 80 years after its innovations.