Theater review: Village Theatre mounts an impressive staging of the Broadway classic "Show Boat," which plays at the Issaquah playhouse May 13-July 3, 2009; and in Everett July 10-Aug. 2, 2009.

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Theater Review |

You go to any production of “Show Boat” hoping the sublime score of this historic Broadway musical will be handled with tender loving care.

So it is in Village Theatre’s production of the Oscar Hammerstein-Jerome Kern classic — which presents challenges to producers that the Issaquah company has largely met.

That is evident the moment Broadway tenor Richard Todd Adams, cutting a handsome figure as suave, Clark Gable-esque gambler Gaylord Ravenal, pours on a rapturous rendition of the romantic ballad “Make Believe.”

It is further confirmed when Seattle’s limpid-voiced, opera-trained Megan Chenovick — as Gaylord’s dewy young beloved, Magnolia Hawks — duets with Adams on the song.

And it is irrefutable after standout Cayman Ilika’s smokey delivery of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” One of half a dozen Kern tunes in this 1927 show that became instant standards, it helps define Ilika’s poignant, groundbreaking character Julie, a mixed-race woman trying to pass as white.

With musical director Bruce Monroe and Village’s bigger-than-usual pit orchestra supporting them with a sparkling rendering of the superb instrumental score, these three singers keep “Show Boat” steaming along.

The show also looks beautiful, thanks to Robert Dahlstrom’s fetching, smoothly changing sets and Karen Ledger’s wealth of costumes. And the dance numbers, choreographed by Stanley Wesley Perryman, are vivacious tributes to popular dance — from the waltz and cakewalk to the Charleston.

What does not always fare so well in director Jerry Dixon’s vigorous mounting of the Broadway masterwork is Hammerstein’s comic and tragic book for the show. Based on a popular novel by Edna Ferber, “Show Boat” depicts several decades in the lives of a riverboat performing troupe led by folksy maestro Cap’n Andy (avuncular Larry Albert).

It is a relic of both the 1920s and the previous 40-some years of showbiz Americana, and you can’t hide that.

The Village outing lays the cornball humor on mighty thick, particularly when Cotton Blossom show boat duo Frank (Greg McCormick Allen) and Ellie (Kathryn Van Meter) are mugging through their bits.

Most of the two dozen musical numbers are well-paced. But the more dramatic and comic business is too often sluggish, and performed too broadly to flesh out the operetta-archetype characters.

Nor is much done to explore the story’s theme of racial bigotry, a genuine breakthrough in early Broadway musical theater.

As the black dockworker Joe, basso vocalist Ekello Harrid Jr. gives a creditable airing of that sorrowful anthem, “Ol’ Man River.” And as his mate Queenie, Marlette Buchanan does fine by eerie mock-spiritual, “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun.’ “

But the ensemble scenes give few signs of the racial hierarchy and inequity that persisted from the 1880s into the 1920s. We see one big happy interracial family here, singin’ and dancin’ with delight — until Leslie Law, stridently buffoonish as Parthy (Cap’n Andy’s wife), comes in to spoil everyone’s fun.

This said, “Show Boat” is a huge undertaking, and the Village production gets it right in many respects.

When Adams (the lead in a 2008 “Phantom of the Opera,” at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre) and Chenovick blend their beautiful voices in “You Are Love,” or the ensemble harmonizes a hearty chorus of “After the Ball” in a ritzy Chicago nightclub, “Show Boat’s” glory is achieved.

And when Ilika pours heart, soul and that rich, amber voice into the plaintive ballad “Bill,” she pierces your heart. One hopes to see much more of her after this.

Misha Berson: