The Cotton Blossom arrives!
(Photos, Courtesy Westchester Broadway Theatre by John Vecchiola)
WPCNR STAGE DOOR. Theatrical Review by John F. Bailey. October 3, 2015:
Come on sleepy townspeople, everybody down to the wharf at Westchester Broadway Theatre on the Mighty Mississippi of the 1880s!
The classic Showboat! Pulled into the WBT wharf Opening Night Thursday and woke up the citizens with the Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, Florenz Ziegfield-produced 1927 Broadway game changer!
This is the show that turned Broadway from vaudeville to narrative musical theatre and integrated the Broadway stage. The musical melodrama recreates the Old South, raises awareness of prejudice and was the first integrated musical.
Starting without an overture, the townspeople flock down to the wharf in the opening sequence and the Showboat Cotton Blossom magnificently pulls into the wharf right at the audience, in a majestic arrival that suspends disbelief. The grand entrance had the audience into the spirit of that once and distant time – the old South. Magnificently costumed dockhands and elegant southern belles, beautiful showgirls burst into song– Cotton Blossom – and you’re hooked.
John Preator and Bonnie Fraser,Ravenal and Magnolia the perfect leads, romantic, electric, affectionate, stirring sentimentality, loyalty all the things that make romance. Perfect Together!
When the ladies meet the debonair Southern Gentleman, Ravenal, (John Preator), the riverboat gambler looking for a new stake, a mix of Rhett Butler and Bret Maverick, you have the essence of Old South Smoothie, but he laments Where’s the Mate for Me.
But wouldn’t you know it?
Magnolia, the Captain’s daughter played by Bonnie Fraser in her WBT debut, steps off the boat and in a coy introduction with Preator, crackling with electricity, the two sing Only Make Believe. The audience just loves this couple whose ups and downs drive the plot as we follow their romance up the Mississippi.
I have rarely seen the edgy repressed attraction for one another so well created as this romantic pair acts it. Ms. Fraser and Mr. Preator team again for another charming duet, You Are Love. Really tugs on your heartstrings.
Ms. Fraser shows the full depth of her charming soprano on Why Do I love you? Another performance that touches the hardest heart. They work!
Michael James Leslie brings down the house in his singing of Ol’ Man River–stopping the show!
But there is another side to Showboat!, the freed slaves of the post Civil War South and the hopelessness that was their life. Michael James Leslie (above) as Joe a black dock worker belts the classic Ol Man River as he and dock hands and bale handlers go about their monotonous hard work.
His silky, measured deep baritone evokes Paul Robeson. I cannot tell you how well he nails this— the audience tell you when they give up their ovation, as they did opening night, many standing – Leslie singing Ol Man River stopped the show.
Sarah Hanlon of the magnifcent cholerata as Julie Laverne singing Can’t Help Lovin Dat Man, making it elegantly bluesy, haunting, sad and warm with her ringing clarity of truth she gets under your skin and in your mind.
The musical standards just keep on coming in this rolling along show. We meet Julie played by Sarah Hanlon also debuting at the WBT who plays the lead in the Cotton Blossom showboat play. She’s in love with the white lead actor and laments the power of love, Can’t Help Lovin Dat Man.
She and Queenie, Joe’s long suffering wife rue the uselessness of the men they love in a funny bitter sweet lament wives and husbands will be all too familiar with. Queenie played by Inga Ballard is great in her comic exchanges with Joe (Mr. Leslie)
Sara Hanlon’s Julie and Eric Briarly as Steve are forced to leave the show because they are a mixed couple. In Act Two, Ms. Hanlon sings the touching tribute to Bill a sad moving song that her impeccable rendering paints a portrait of regret tinged with fond remembrance.
Ms. Hanlon leaves the action all too early, when a rebuffed suitor accuses her of being married to a white man. She and her husband, the lead actor are forced to leave the show, and the audience is left to wonder what became of them as a mixed couple in the Old South. She shows up later in Chicago (This was such a gutsy musical to do in the 1920s, the time of lynchings, Jim Crow, segregation, forced labor for people of color).
In the search for a new lead, Capn Andy decides to make Magnolia, his daughter the new female lead, and Ravenal the male lead. You can see where this is going don’t you?
Romance and heartbreak ahead. As Magnolia’s mother,Parthy Hawks, played with deadpan comic sarcasm by Karen Murphy continues to try to prevent the inevitable romance. The electricity sizzles between Ravenal and Magnolia; they just glow! You know that the couple is going to get together, culminating in a raucous finale to Act I
The repartee of the two old married couples Captain Andy Hawks and Parthy Hawks and Joe and Queenie lighten up serious moments. Both old married teams played by Jamie Ross and Karen Murphy (Capn Andy and Parthy) and Joe (Mr. Leslie) and Queenie (Inga Ballard) are great comic relief – natural masters of comic timing with ability to temper insult with compassion as people who have been together a long time do. It’s not business, just personal.
Act Two follows Ravenal and Magnolia adventures and misadventures…childbirth, Ravenal’s run of bad luck at the gambling tables, eventually ending up in his leaving her and his daughter
We catch up with Julie (Sarah Hanlon) doing nightclub work in Chicago, when she sings Bill, auditioning a new song, aa torchy number that she is low down and bluesy on.
Frank Schulz played by the zany Daniel Scott Watson and the comedic Ellie May Chipley (Amanda Pulcini) coach Magnolia to win a nightclub job to support her family, and themselves deliver Goodbye My Lady Love.
Foils throughout are the dance and comedy team of Amanda Pulcini as Ellie May Chipley and Daniel Scott Walton as Frank who aid Magnolia’s romance, and help her get back on her feet again as an entertainer. Here the duo perform a snappy Goodbye My Lady Love Ms. Pulcini is a natural wisecracking tough girl always fighting for a part — she also does a solid comic number “Life on the Wicked Stage” that is a hoot!
Dance sequences segue the passage of decades — as the Ensemble above Charlestons in the 1920s.
The momentum of life and its choices and twists and turns in perspective executed by the marvelous ensemble assembled by Director Ryan Edward Wise –Malcolm Armwood, Eric Briarley, Michael Dauer, Jonathan Freeland, Alia Hodge, Justin R.G. Holcomb, Celeste Hudson, Paul-Jordan Jansen,Leisa Mather, Zoie Morris, Gabriella Perez, Kristyn Pope, Adam Richardson, Roger Preston Smith, Karen Webb.
How do the families end up?
The Cotton Blossom departs after 2 hours and 45 minutes with a reunion that sends the townsfolk home happy…cheering and waiting for Showboat!’s next landing.
Showboat! is docked at the Westchester Broadway Theatre through January 31, with a break for the WBT Holiday Show. Come on down, contact the box office at 914-592-2222, or visit www.BroadwayTheatre.com.
It’s a great show for children. No off-color language. No gunshots. No violence. Loving couples. Couples that respect each other. Feelings that matter. You cannot find a better evening entertainment for all ages.