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Stage Review

Good times roll for ol' 'Show Boat'

Melinda Cowan and Jim Walton in the high-energy ''Show Boat,'' at the North Shore Music Theatre. Melinda Cowan and Jim Walton in the high-energy ''Show Boat,'' at the North Shore Music Theatre. (Carolle Photography)
By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / October 2, 2008
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Gamblers, show people, working folks, and young lovers all tumble out of Edna Ferber's epic "Show Boat," transformed into the glorious 1927 Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II musical now playing at the North Shore Music Theatre. Filled with a lush score that includes "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "Show Boat" plays like the best of Cap'n Andy's enchanting melodramas on his own showboat, the Cotton Blossom.

As part of a season celebrating the work of Tony award-winner Susan Stroman, North Shore is reviving Harold Prince's 1994 version of this gem, for which Stroman created the choreography. But Prince's vision was vast, with a huge cast that spilled all over the stage. Restaging that grand vision within the confines of North Shore's playing area isn't always a good fit, and scenes occasionally look too crowded and cramped.

Fortunately, the cast includes a terrific group of principals, and director Glenn Casale makes sure nothing gets in the way of their songs.

Among the standouts is Ron Bohmer as the gambler Gaylord Ravenal, whose glorious tenor in "Where's the Mate for Me?" and "Make Believe" creates a stunning contrast with Phillip Boykin's impossibly rich bass in "Ol' Man River." Kern's score demands operatic skill from the singers, which can be off-putting if it isn't grounded in strong acting chops. But Bohmer, as the charming rake, and Boykin, as the stalwart representative of all African-Americans stuck doing the dirty work, give the characters much-needed depth.

Terry Burrell, as Julie, creates a wonderful arc for her character, the showboat star who loses everything after her mixed race is revealed. Years later, when we discover Julie in a Chicago nightclub, Burrell's delivery of "Bill" is wrenching in its simplicity. At one moment she turns and sees the look on the club manager's face and pulls herself together with a strength that is breathtaking.

Teri Dale Hansen makes a perfectly innocent young Magnolia, the daughter of the riverboat captain who falls for Ravenal, and their duet "You Are Love" never gets bogged down in saccharine sentiment. Sharon Wilkins is a feisty Queenie and Gordon Stanley's Cap'n Andy adds levity and common sense.

Besides her clever combinations in production numbers, Stroman's biggest contribution to the 1994 revival was two dance montages in the second act, which show the passage of time through dance styles - and Florence Klotz's vivid costumes. Although North Shore's dancers do a great job with the steps, without the space to spread out and allow other images to feed into the theme, the sequences feel a little lost.

Choreographer Ron Gibbs does manage to pull off a high-energy ending with "Kim's Charleston," which adds a positive note to a musical that leaves us feeling more wistful than hopeful.

Show Boat

A musical with music by Jerome Kern, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.

Directed by Glenn Casale. Scenic design by Evan A. Bartoletti. Costumes by Florence Klotz. Lighting by Martin E. Vreeland. Choreography by Ron Gibbs. Musical direction by Brian Cimmet.

At the North Shore Music Theatre through Oct. 12. Tickets: $40-$77. 978-232-7200, www.nsmt.org.

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