Can’t help lovin’ that Show Boat at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Modern audiences are still likely to find the miscegenation drama that sets the story in motion more dramatically engaging than much of what passes for relevance in today’s musicals. And that hit parade of Jerome Kern standards is like “Ol’ Man River” himself — it just keeps rolling along.
Co-Directors Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick plumb the rich depths of emotion and comedy in Oscar Hammerstein’s adaptation and lyrics. The strong cast assembled at Toby’s in Columbia is made even stronger by the number of truly first-rate performers on hand.
Oscar Hammerstein had already won acclaim with his librettos for Broadway operettas when he turned his pen to Edna Ferber’s novel in 1927. A few antique flourishes remain in the score he wrote with Jerome Kern, but more remarkable is how fresh it still seems as it covers some 40 years of quintessentially American show business.
At this point there are more different versions of Show Boat than there are choruses of “99 Bottles of Beer.” The one at Toby’s is a recent hybrid that uses “Ol’ Man River” as a thematic motif to comment on the action. Queenie’s portent, “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’,” is used in similar fashion, and her and Joe’s comic duet “I Still Suits Me” (from the 1936 movie) makes a rare but welcome addition.
With her buoyant personality and marvelous singing voice, Abbie Middleton proves herself a sweet ingénue as Magnolia. Her charming game of “Only Make Believe” surely left every male in the audience eager to play along.
Playing Ravenal is Russell Rinker, even better here than he was at Toby’s last year playing the French plantation owner in South Pacific, and he quickly makes the role his own, especially through such full-bodied romantic anthems as “You Are Love.”
My two favorite performances, however, are Julia Lancione as Julie La Verne and Marquis White as Joe. Both have outstandingly musical voices and the confidence to twist their famous solos in surprising ways.
Lancione had opening night audiences hanging on every line of her torch song, “Bill.” She was never less than totally believable in the early scenes as the young show boat star derailed by racism, then all but stole Act II with her return as the older saloon chanteuse one toot away from the skids.
Marquis White offered a real departure from usual portrayals of the African-American stevedore, Joe. His well-considered “Ol’ Man River,” his touches of character humor, and his graceful presentation of aging in the later section, all added up to a performance demanding award consideration at the end of the year.
Joe’s spouse, Queenie, is played strongly by Samantha Deininger. Her voice and emotions help keep the melodrama feeling honest, and she is a pure delight when she cuts loose on “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”
Near-perfect comic support is given by the always lovable Robert Biedermann as Captain Andy and longtime Baltimore favorite Jane C. Boyle as his wife, Parthy. Jeffrey Shankle, and Elizabeth Rayca are also well paired as the novelty duet, Frank and Ellie May.
Justin Calhoun infuses the part of Steven Baker with more sympathy than normal, and David Bosley-Reynolds turns in a nicely menacing sheriff, among other roles.
This production also makes good use of Joe’s fellow stevedores in a top-notch harmonic conversion on “Ol’ Man River.” They are played by Andre Hinds, DeCarlo Raspberry, and Anwar Thomas.
Deserving its own applause is the choreography by Mark Minnick for all the period movement and specialty steps.
The live musical direction by Ross Scott Rawlings and his small pit orchestra provide superb accompaniment to the singing and dancing. They also manage to bring out a lot of amazing underscoring in some unusually rich orchestrations.
The variety of colorful period costumes this time around was provided by AT Jones & Company. As always at Toby’s, the stage is picture perfect thanks to Set and Lighting Designer Daniel A. Hopkins. Mark Smedley’s sound design keeps everything said or sung on stage a pleasure to hear.
Show Boat is most deservedly dubbed “An American Classic.” It’s only docked in Howard County until March 19th, so don’t delay adding your party to the passenger list.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours 40 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.
Show Boat plays through March 19, 2017, at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road, in Columbia, MD. Reservations are required at (301) 596-6161, (410) 730-8311 or 800-88TOBYS, or you purchase them online.