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Stage : ‘Show Boat’ Afloat Without Its Star

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Not everything went according to plan at the opening of the California Music Theatre’s new season in a new theater with an old show. But that everything went at all was miraculous enough.

The show is “Show Boat.”

Van Johnson, who was supposed to headline as Cap’n Andy (and celebrate his 75th birthday at Saturday’s opening as well), played the Wednesday and Thursday previews, but was hospitalized Friday with a bronchial infection that will sideline him for the rest of the run. He’s reported resting comfortably, but he won’t be back.

Director Gary Davis stepped into the role at the last minute Friday, but wasted no time finding a more suitable replacement. Actor Alan Young, who played Cap’n Andy at Long Beach in 1983 (under Davis’ direction), agreed to do it, and his zesty opening night performance as the jolly captain of this Mississippi show boat only spottily betrayed his late arrival on the scene.

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This crisis over, opening night festivities confined themselves to letting the public discover Pasadena’s 1921 Raymond Theatre, the stylish 1900-seat former vaudeville house that is CMT’s new home.

Granted, almost anything would be better than the cavernous Pasadena Civic Auditorium where CMT had been doing business. But the graceful Raymond, still in the process of being restored, benefits from being in convivial “Old Pasadena,” a redo of a cluster of industrial buildings at the west end of town where every other establishment is a restaurant, antique shop, gallery or boutique.

It makes the theatergoing experience a lot more pleasant, which can only help the future of CMT. The show itself is another matter. This revival of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II 1927 musical is predictably meddlesome and remains more earnest than engaging.

Schmaltz is of the essence.

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Davis has streamlined and rearranged the score, compressed some numbers, eliminated others--especially at the top and bottom of Act II--turning this “Show Boat” into something of a Hallmark card. The “Dahomey” ballet is out, so are some of Frank and Ellie’s Olio routines, so is St. Agatha’s convent where little Kim goes to school, and so is the grown-up Kim.

This Kim never grows up. In this version, she has nothing to do with bringing her folks back together. The happy reunion of Magnolia and Ravenal is thoroughly Hollywood. It happens because it has to, not but because it needs to, without benefit of the touching gestation engineered by a loving daughter.

Since this score was lost for 50 years, and everyone at one time or another, it seems, has tampered with it anyway, one quibbles less with the choices than the results they beget. There’s a chasmic difference between the flat hearts-and-flowers experience we have here and the new kind of hybrid Kern and Hammerstein created in 1927 that was part frivolous operetta, part new American musical, with a particularly bold undercurrent of commentary on discrimination and miscegenation.

It is not necessary to give us a tenebrous version of “Show Boat” to achieve this, but the show is filled with sensitive pressure points that, heeded correctly, could be immensely rewarding for a 1990s audience. Even last year’s sanitized version by Opera Pacific, which was otherwise richer, missed the show boat by not daring to go deeper into the politics of the material.

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Not really having a company that could sustain such an attempt, Davis sidesteps the politics altogether. Young’s Cap’n Andy gets by on great natural verve and eagerness. He carried a well-disguised script opening night on which he rarely cast a glance. Some of the other leads are vocally powerful, notably Dan Tullis Jr.'s straightforward Joe (“Ol’ Man River”), Chera Holland’s unhappy Julie (“Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man,” “Bill”), Michael Maguire’s Gaylord Ravenal and Dana Greene’s full-throated Magnolia (“Make Believe,” “You Are Love”). But the acting and choreography (the work of Danny Michaels) are strictly by the book.

Fritzi Burr’s Parthy and Desiree Dargan mug their way through the show and not much else, and while Holland, Maguire and Greene can sing, they are fairly wooden as actors. Sally Spencer and Paul Cira are bright spots as Frank and Ellie, the happy vaudevillians of the show, but their dancing has been curtailed and their roles somewhat trimmed.

The Pasadena Pops Orchestra provides strong musical support. The handsome, if somewhat synthetic, sets borrowed from San Bernardino Light Opera are uncredited. Lighting by Ward Carlisle loves to bathe everything that sings in pink gels and spots (in the style of the 1920s) and Pamela Gill and Lisa Johnson supply good costuming all around. But a rotten sound system dampened the entire evening, either by cutting out or by hopelessly overmiking everyone. Let’s get the technology right or toss it out on its decibel.

It’s hard to tell if any ambition to do more existed and was dampened by an awareness of the large company’s limitations. Certainly the circumstances surrounding Saturday’s opening could not have helped. They made it remarkably brave and professional of Davis to take on not only the world, but the press, without postponement.

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But CMT still needs to sharpen its act and its artistry, with or without human crises or technological glitches. Given the new environment and its distinct superiority to the old one, there is reason to hope things will improve.

‘Show Boat’

Alan Young: Cap’n Andy Hawks

Fritzi Burr Parthy: Ann Hawks

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Chera Holland: Julie La Verne

Michael Maguire: Gaylord Ravenal

Dana Greene: Magnolia Hawks

Dan Tullis Jr.: Joe

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Desiree Dargan: Queenie

Sally Spencer: Ellie Chipley

Paul Cira: Frank Schultz

Diane Busey-Wallace: Landlady/Lottie

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Kathleen Sullivan: Dolly

Lorraine Kreuz: Hazel

Alonna Hays: Kim

Omar Hester: Jake

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Joshua Fischel: Steve Baker/Jeb

Scott Wedekind: Pete/Jim Greene

Robert Goodwin: Windy/Dealer

Michael Stern: Rubberface

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Joel Hile: Sheriff Vallon/Carnival Barker

Gino Gaudio: Zeke

Robin Bartunek: Fatima

Tony Hall: Pawnbroker

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Monica McMurtry: Ethel

Jeffrey Polk: Doorman

A California Music Theatre revival of the 1927 musical based on Edna Ferber’s novel. Director Gary Davis. Music Jerome Kern. Book & lyrics Oscar Hammerstein II. Sets San Bernardino Civic Light Opera. Lights Ward Carlisle. Costumes Pamela Gill, Lisa Johnson. Musical director Jeff Rizzo. Choreographer Danny Michaels. Production stage manager Christine Santmyers.


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