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Ol’ Man River: a review of Diamond Head Theater’s ‘Showboat’

    By Mark Brians. April 7, 2014 - 6:04 pm

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Last weekend the Diamond Head Theatre Company opened their production of the Broadway musical “Showboat,” directed by John Rampage. 

Having grown up in musical theatre, while at the same time never actually seeing what many consider to be a foundational part of the classic Broadway cannon, the performance was, for me, a real treat.

“Showboat” is often praised for the way it discloses issues of race, sex and fidelity –deep issues– in an extremely approachable way. It touches on the complexities of human sociality and polity with that markedly southern charm and genuine kindness.

It is this quality I think, not its excitement per se, or onetime “radicalness,” that keeps audiences coming back generation after generation.

Our story begins with workers and performers on Captain Andy Hawks’ (played by DHT regular Fedrico Biven) showboat, which travels up and down the great Mississippi River harboring in river-towns giving performances of a sort of vaudevillian nature.

Here we are introduced to the performers: Ellie May (played by Lauren Teruya), Frank Schultz (Nick Amador), lead Julie LaVerne (DHT veteran Tricia Marciel) and her husband Steven Baker (Garret Hols).

Along these lives are the segregated lives of the African-American workers. Although they remain relatively separate, the whole show is strung together in moments of interaction, reaction and participation across and over the borders drawn between races.

Significant among these are the throbbing melodies of Joe (played by John Sloan III, during a break from touring with the “Lion King”) and Queenie (Alison L.B. Maldonado); two African-American workers on board the showboat. In the story they clarify, define and exemplify what love is, and concomitantly, what faithfulness is.

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Circumstances of southern law and culture force Julie and Steve to leave the company, and allows for the captain’s daughter, Magnolia Hawks, and the wandering troublemaker Gaylord Ravenol (Lea Woods Almanza and Anthony Feliciano, respectively) to take their places as lead performers.

They fall in love, marry and, over the course of time, move north to Chicago in pursuit of Gaylord’s shady business interests.

Tragedy befalls the couple until the end in which the disparate lives of the showboat stars are sewn back together in a “love that is stronger than death; one which many rivers cannot wash away.”

The consummation of the play is the final song during which Gaylord declares, “You are love.” In this, we realize how love has developed over the course of the story from something abstract (“I think I love you”) to something tangible concrete.

Love becomes incarnate in the face of the beloved. When at last Gaylord finishes his declaration, love stands before us in bodily form. And all of the struggles transgressions of the narrative are summed up in the moment where we behold love embodied in the unity and progeny afforded by romance.

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In addition to this highly incarnate depiction of love the musical thrives on that prime wealth of unique spirit, which characterizes the “old South.”

It would not be the same story if one tried to transpose the story into another time, another locale, or another culture. The old South, particularly the old Mississippi, is the main character in the play.

Indeed the continual reprise of Joe singing “Ol’ Man River” in every major threshold of the story suggests that the driving force behind the plot is indeed the mighty Mississippi. The parallels between love and the river, between fidelity and difference, and between suffering and joy present an understanding of the world, which is unique to that time and place.

In terms of talent, a large part of the cast made their debut at DHT in this performance. This made the composite experience more intriguing as it marked a new spirit in the company.

Local high school performers have come of age and are sticking around to join the ohana at DHT. This is always encouraging. Additionally, “Showboat” cast includes HPU’s own Cheyne Nomura, who plays a variety of smaller speaking roles.

“Showboat” is a good quality performance. Though at times, and in certain places, the acting feels a bit stiff, the music and the quality of the vocal performance, the show is top notch.

There is a difficult decision that every theatre makes for itself – on which side to err in the event that it is impossible to have excellence in both acting and music. Given the constraints of the Diamond Head Theatre company, the musical excellence they are able to maintain is downright remarkable.

Photos courtesy of Diamond Head Theatre