The 1927 smash hit "Show Boat" helped modernize Broadway musicals by more tightly integrating the story and the songs; and speaking of integration, its miscegenation-themed plot was strikingly mature for mainstream entertainment produced during the Jim Crow era.
Although the plot spans the distant period from 1887 to 1927, it remains disturbingly relevant in terms of the racial anxiety still being felt in 21st-century America. That's why the boisterously enjoyable production of "Show Boat" at Toby's Dinner Theatre provides plenty of food for thought.
These serious thoughts keep percolating throughout the show, but they do so within the lively context of showbiz characters who sing, dance and engage in over-the-top melodrama both on stage and off as the vessel poetically named the Cotton Blossom moves along the Mississippi River.
Derived from the novel by Edna Ferber, "Show Boat" has a score by Jerome Kern that ranks as one of the most glorious in Broadway musical history. There's a wonderful stretch in the first act when the songs "Only Make Believe," "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" are heard in quick succession. These and other songs will be reprised numerous times during the rest of the show, but you'll welcome every reiteration in the otherwise awkwardly constructed second act.
And the book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II strike the right balance between the serious racial themes and lighter comic moments. Life along the Mississippi includes such a rich assortment of characters that this emotional spectrum is fully warranted.
The Toby's production co-directed by Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick, choreographed by Minnick, and with musical direction by Ross Scott Rawlings likewise manages to convey that range of emotions within a musical that is ambitious owing to its subject matter, cast size and period trappings. Although there occasionally are scenes where one might wish for a bit more nautical decor here or ensemble size there, the Toby's production generally does a fine job of immersing you in the spectacle.
What really immerses you in the life aboard this "Show Boat" is that the lead actors are admirably cast in their roles and have voices to do Kern's score justice.
The most dramatically compelling character is the glamorously dressed show boat performer Julie LaVerne, whose mixed-race status has remained a closely guarded secret. Julie is a prime example of a character type found in novels, plays and films of that period, the so-called tragic mulatto, whose very existence makes a lot of people uneasy under these racially-segregated conditions.
Although Julie's white husband, Steven Baker (Justin Calhoun), and others in her immediate showbiz community are supportive, society as a whole is hostile.
As Julie, Julia Lancione brings the requisite beauty and pathos to the role; most importantly, her voice is strong in such emotion-drenched songs as "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and "Bill."
The other principal female role is Magnolia Hawks (Abby Middleton), the lovely young daughter of the couple who run this show boat, Captain Andy Hawks (Robert John Biedermann) and his wife, Parthy Ann (Jane C. Boyle). The parental roles are broadly written in a vaudeville-style manner and offer appreciated comic relief, but these two actors might want to tone down the caricatures a little.
It's not really a problem, however, because Middleton has you caring about Magnolia's romantic connection to a handsome gambler who lives up to his matinee idol name, Gaylord Ravenal (Russell Rinker).
Prominent among the musical styles melded together in Kern's score is that of the operetta, which was very popular back in the 1920s. When this production's Magnolia and Gaylord join voices in the romantic duets "Only Make Believe" and "You Are Love," the results are musical bliss to your ears.
The romantic relationships in "Show Boat" undergo various complications, and it's to the show's credit that it does not force a happy resolution upon every societal issue involved within the story's final scenes set in Jazz Age-era Chicago.
Among others in the large cast, mention must be made of Marquise White as Joe, who expresses all of the sadness and determination felt by the story's African-American characters in the overwhelmingly moving song "Ol' Man River."
"Show Boat" runs through March 19 at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia. Call 410-730-8311 or go to www.tobysdinnertheatre.com