Rolling on the River

Show Boat sails through romance, racism, and badly paced dialogue

While many contemporary musicals congratulate themselves on taking up dicey themes (e.g., bipolar disorder in Next to Normal), they have nothing on the first true musical play ever produced. Back in 1927, Show Boat took on the incendiary topic of miscegenation, and did it in eloquent style.

Now the intrepid Mercury Summer Stock company is presenting its version of this classic Oscar Hammerstein (book and lyrics) and Jerome Kern (music) extravaganza. Hampered by poorly paced dialogue scenes and a couple less than stellar characterizations, the show rises above those glitches to deliver a mostly viable rendering of this chunk of theater history.

Based on the eponymous novel by Edna Ferber, Show Boat the musical veered away from the silly, superficial stage entertainments in the early 20th century. Hewing closely to the storyline, songs were written to advance the plot and amplify personality traits.

As the big boat docks in Natchez on the Mississippi River in 1887, Steve and Julie are the headliners, and also sweethearts, on this floating music hall. But after Steve gets into a fight with ship engineer Pete, Pete swears he'll get back at Steve by revealing a secret about Julie.

Captain Andy Hawks and his wife Parthy try to keep things on an even keel while also reining in their 18-year-old daughter Magnolia. That's a good idea, because an itinerant gambler, Gaylord Ravenal, has shown up dockside fixing his bluff-proof gaze on the young woman.

But when it's revealed that Julie has Negro blood in her, the racial pudding hits the fan. She and Steve (Nathan T. Earley) are forced to leave the ship, setting up the second act that follows most of the characters over the ensuing 40 years.

Of course, if you're bold enough to do Show Boat, you'd also better be smart enough to find someone who can do justice to the signature song, "Old Man River." And director Pierre-Jacques Brault has done just that with Brian Keith Johnson playing the role of Joe.

"Old Man River" is sung (or noodled in the background) about as often as "It's a Small World" is played on that mind-numbing Disney ride. The difference is that "OMR" is magnificent, and Johnson invests it with all the power and depth you could want. As frequently as he reprises it, you always want him to do just one more chorus.

Indeed, the entire African-American segment of the cast is excellent, handing their singing and dancing parts with skill and focus. This is particularly evident with Kelvette Beacham, who holds nothing back as the ample Queenie in her amusing huckster jive "Queenie's Bally-Hoo."

As Julie, Maria Thomas Lister seems a bit lost in "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," failing to register what that song reveals about her lineage. But she delivers a poignant take on "Bill" in Julie's down-and-out phase. Jennifer Myor uses her fine pipes to good effect, although she misses the humorous turn in "After the Ball" when she tries out for the Trocadero nightclub.

In the central role of Captain Andy, Mark Seven is a mixed bag. When he's sure of his lines he nails some nice laughs. But his character is remarkably un-nautical and many times the words come slowly, leaving timing in tatters. This is especially true when Andy takes on all the roles in the shipboard show and fails to mine the comic gold in that situation.

Hester Lewellen as Parthy provides a staunch foil for Andy, although she and Seven could have more fun with this odd pair. Although he glowers nicely and sings sweetly, Brian Marshall as Ravenal doesn't exude the excitement and heart-fluttering danger of this exotic stranger.

It's understandable that the Mercury group would skimp on expensive stage sets. Still, the bare brick walls of the Brooks Theatre lend a defiantly non-buoyant look to a show that could stand a whiff of the big river.