"Show Boat," the groundbreaking 1927 musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, still maintains its remarkable qualities. Though a full-fledged entertainment as its title suggests, the dramatic musical has the depth of a romantic epic, which Glenn Casale's lovely new Music Circus production knowingly articulates.
This is the 13th Music Circus production of "Show Boat," though the first in the Wells Fargo Pavilion. In 1951, "Show Boat" was Music Circus' first production. The musical was last produced there in 2001.
Based on Edna Ferber's best-selling novel of the same name, "Show Boat" upended musical entertainment conventions of its time, bringing realism to the stage where fluffy light operettas, silly comedies and plotless revues had reigned. The story, opening in 1887, follows for 40 years the relationships of performers, stagehands and dock laborers on a Mississippi River show boat, the Cotton Blossom. Many of those workers were African American and their culture permeates "Show Boat," influencing the music, dancing and plot.
Still, the show is based in operetta, and most of the extraordinary voices onstage have a finely etched classical sensibility. Jennifer Hope Wills as Magnolia and Ron Bohmer as Gaylord Ravenal, the central couple of the story, are a marvelously matched pair who soar on the ballads "Make Believe," "I Have the Room Above Her," and "You Are Love." Phillip Boykin's fabulously rich, pure bass baritone envelops the classic "Ol' Man River," underscoring the song's poetic philosophy.
An initially rigid Nikki Crawford as Julie loosened up during "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," one of the musical's major motifs. In the second act, Crawford simmered perfectly on the torchy "Bill." Kristen Smith's bright Kim sparkles in her late turn on "Why Do I Love You?/Kim's Charleston."
Despite director Casale's sharp pace, the longish show's episodic second act didn't maintain the first act's dramatic grip until the satisfying finale.
Dan Mojica created the energetic choreography and music director Dennis Castellano led the fluid orchestra through Kern's varied and memorable score.
Romantic love and loyalty are threads that tie the characters together, from Ravenal and Magnolia to her parents Cap'n Andy (George Lee Andrews) and Parthy (Audrie Neenan). The innocent Magnolia doesn't question Ravenal's gambler life, only despairing when he thinks it's best to leave her. The Cap'n's easygoing, happy-to-get-along manner never seems a match for his wife's "mean disposition," but they stand together from beginning to end.
Three 1/2 stars
What: Music Circus production
Where: Wells Fargo Pavilion, 1419 H St., Sacramento
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday; 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Matinees are 2 p.m. Thursday and Saturday.
Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission
Call The Bee's Call The Bee's Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.