Show Boat

When Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's adaptation of Edna Ferber's best-seller was first produced in 1927, it created the standard for all musical theatre that followed. Prior to that, elements of vaudeville reviews dominated a genre best described as "musical comedy."

Show Boat wove serious themes—racial prejudice, economic hardship, and romantic trials—into a contiguous story set to music. While opera has been doing this for centuries, this was a first for the American musical.

Troy Cook as Gaylord Ravenal and Julia Burrows as Magnolia Hawks
Troy Cook as Gaylord Ravenal
and Julia Burrows as Magnolia Hawks
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
At the time of the premiere, there were no Tony or Olivier Awards, but those have been picked up in various revivals over the past 86 years. The show has been cut, rearranged, and adapted many times, beginning with Kern and Hammerstein, who started with a 4½ hour piece during the long rehearsal process. The current Central City Opera production, now running at the Buell Theatre, sails home in a swift 2½ hours, including intermission.

Once the threads of the main plot are set up, with Julie (Emily Pulley) and Steve (William Dwyer) leaving the Cotton Blossom show, after a local sheriff charges them with miscegenation, and Magnolia (Julia Burrows) and Gaylord (Troy Cook) replace them, adding fuel and flames to their real life romantic sparks, Joe (Solomon Howard), the dockworker, offers 'Nolia his advice via the signature number, "Old Man River."

Solomon Howard as Joe
Solomon Howard as Joe
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
The audible gasps from the audience, as Howard spoke the sparse lines leading into the song, anticipated the exhilaration that filled the hall for the entire number and every reprise throughout the evening, as Howard's basso profundo resonated throughout the audience and the auditorium. Seriously, if you love Paul Robeson's version of this, you will be blown away by Howard's! Angela Renée Simpson's Queenie is a strong and feisty compliment to Joe.

We are also taken by Pully's work as Julie, including a soulful rendition of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," as well as by Burrows' lovely soprano and Cook's impressive tenor, who shine together in "You Are Love" and "Why Do I Love You?".

Ellen Kaye as Ellie Mae Shipley and Curt Olds as Frank Schultz
Ellen Kaye as Ellie Mae Shipley
and Curt Olds as Frank Schultzs
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
Local favorite Ellen Kaye (Kate Monster/Lucy, Avenue Q, Boulder's Dinner Theatre, etc.) and Curt Olds light it up as the vaudeville team, the Schultz'. Denis Lute and Gene Scheer provide marvelous repartee and poignant moments as Parthy Ann and Cap'n Andy Hawks.

James Youmans' scenic design and elegant, efficient set pieces keep the segues short and seamless. Hal France and the festival orchestra deliver a lush rendition of Kern's memorable score.

The only out-of-place aspect of director Ray Rodericks' well-rounded production is the portrayal of the female slaves, stuffed and padded into caricatures, who would not have been capable of working in the fields.

Central City Opera's production of Showboat runs through August 11th at the Buell Theatre. For tickets: 303-292-6700 or

Bob Bows


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