Through a cloak of rich and entertaining melodies Show Boat weaves hardship, class, injustice and time in an unforgettable piece of musical theatre. This new production by Melbourne’s The Production Company does exactly that: the unfolding drama is served poignantly and comes with a healthy side dish of unforced comedy.

© Jeff Busby / The Production Company
© Jeff Busby / The Production Company
Show Boat is based on author Edna Ferber’s own observations of life on the floating theatres that plied U.S. rivers from the 1870s to the 1930s. Underpinned by the prejudices experienced by African-Americans, it portrays three generations of unsteady relationships aboard a Mississippi show boat. Ferber’s 1926 novel of the same name was an instant success, immediately becoming fuel for composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, whose theatrical adaptation premièred in New York in December 1927. As with the novel, its success was instantaneous; despite this, many revisions on stage and in film, made by the authors and others, have occurred throughout its long, award-winning performance history.

Director Roger Hodgman has skilfully aligned The Production Company’s capabilities suitably, employing Goodspeed Theatre’s recent simple and direct version, but adding Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations to suit the large-scale State Theatre. This production is true to Hodgman’s hopes to make evident the spirit of the authors’ intentions. Its strengths are many and the entertainment is served generously.

© Jeff Busby / The Production Company
© Jeff Busby / The Production Company
Immediately, the glow of the music-stand lamps and the tiered setting for the on-stage orchestra could evoke night-lights on the banks of the Mississippi. From here on, a current of on-stage orchestral boldness flows, and under the tight command of the black-bustled, Victorian-dressed musical director Kellie Dickerson, Orchestra Victoria’s 25 members wrapped the performance in musical warmth, pathos and jollity. Kern’s music is complemented with gusto from a powerful and melodious chorus even when several scenes appeared thin in members, namely during Magnolia and Ravenal’s hasty 1887 wedding celebration concluding Act I, and Act II’s 1899 New Year’s Eve celebration at the Trocadero Nightclub.

But generally for me, set designer Christina Schmidt’s stage disappoints. Spanning the background, a large white cinema screen either tells us photographically we’re on the banks of the Mississippi (the paddle-steamer, Cotton Blossom appears rather ghostly) or in the city of Chicago. An unadorned raised platform (which represents the show boat’s deck) sits before it. If the range and quality of the three or four projections were theatrically smarter, it could be more successful. But overall, there’s a feeling of disconnection from the foreground where the scene shifts seemed to make do with very little in the way of screens and props, rather making even the action feel weighed down on the large flat stage. Similarly, Matt Scott’s lighting is limited in its visual effects, relying principally on top-lit moody blues and warm yellows. The Trocadero Nightclub setting is the production’s more successful visual moment in the way it spreads across the stage to encompass the orchestra.

© Jeff Busby / The Production Company
© Jeff Busby / The Production Company
Visual titillation relies on Isaac Lummis’ period costumes which express the societal contrasts between the drab, gritty “coloured folk” and dazzling tailored “white folk” with immediate eye-catching force. This costumed beauty is gorgeously brought to life by a mass of sure-footed, energetic and precision-perfect dancers choreographed by Dana Jolly.

Despite some great dancing and acting (and overacting as required), as well as some pretty decent southern accents from an accomplished cast, the principal roles are delivered with mixed results. I’m not certain if it’s the fault of microphone enhancement or a tendency for voices to over-project on some musical numbers, but occasionally the resulting sound shifts detract from vocal smoothness.

Philip Gould commandeered the role of Captain Andy Hawks with trust, tolerance and lashings of wackiness, displaying every bit the showmanship required of musical theatre. As his daughter, Magnolia Hawks, Alinta Chidzey’s performance is gold, moving from youthful naivety to womanhood with radiance. Chidzey’s voice is sweet and bright and she possesses an ability to project with a hovering delicacy over the chorus numbers. This especially shines as she bravely overcomes the requisite nerves in Act II’s “After the ball”.

Battered by his gambling addictions, Magnolia’s enduring love is Gaylord Ravenal, dapperly styled by Gareth Keegan. Despite his confident acting and warm tone, the desired chemistry he needs to work with Magnolia falls a little flat and is he vocally strained in the higher notes.

The 1887 show boat leading lady, whose mixed blood origins spell her alcoholic decline after being reported to the authorities, is Julie La Verne, acted with great sensitivity and sang with emotive flair by Christina O’Neill, culminating in her Act II solo, “Bill”, to a good many tears I suspect. Glenn Hill gives a truly commendable and dashing performance as Frank Schultz, the show boat performer whose loyalty to the vivacious Ellie May Chipley, played exuberantly by Nicole Melloy, is endearing. Judith Roberts heartily portrays the nitpicking Parthy Ann Hawks and Heru Pinkasova as Queenie, the black show boat cook, is convincing in character and beautiful in voice.

Eddie Muliaumaseali'i © Jeff Busby / The Production Company
Eddie Muliaumaseali'i
© Jeff Busby / The Production Company
But binding the story’s 40-year journey is Queenie’s husband, Joe. Moving only when necessary, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i honours Show Boat’s melancholic musical signature, “Ol’ Man River,” in a deep, hollow, resonant voice which encompasses the breadth of time and the ennoblement of the human spirit. Many tears flow.

As race issues simmer under the story, what I like about Show Boat is that while it doesn’t preach about the injustice of racial discrimination, it undeniably leaves you feeling that injustices exist. This makes the musical’s relevance as strong today. We only have to turn to what was once a little known place called Ferguson for a reminder.