Ben Davis and Sarah Uriarte Berry
in Show Boat
(© Diane Sobolewski)
Ben Davis and Sarah Uriarte Berry
in Show Boat
(© Diane Sobolewski)
There's a telling scene in the Goodspeed Opera House's decidedly uneven revival of the beloved Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical Show Boat, in which the newly abandoned Magnolia (Sarah Uriarte Berry), seeking a means of support after husband Gaylord's defection, attempts to resuscitate her singing career with a stiff, deadly church-choir delivery of the turn-of-the-century standard "After the Ball."

After some spirited urging by her father, Cap'n Andy (Lenny Wolpe), Magnolia's rendition still remains a distinct unwow -- only now Berry has a big grin pasted on her face. It is this sense of trying too hard which haunts the show as a whole -- despite the brief respites that occur when some of the cast's more confident, grounded performers command the spotlight.

Lovely as her voice is, Berry appears a bit careworn as the supposedly 18-year-old Magnolia Hawks, a nubile young miss who dreams of someday appearing on the stage of her parents' Mississippi River showboat. (Amy Clark's costumes for the whole show are splendid, but wig designer Leah J. Loukas has done Berry no favors with a mousy mop.)

Ben Davis as the flashy Gaylord proves to be especially well equipped to do the show's gorgeous melodies justice. He lends a nonchalant panache to "Where's the Mate for Me" and his voice blends beautifully with Berry's pure tones, helping to make the pair's duets, "Only Make Believe" and "You Are Love," simply soar.

Lesli Margherita portrays Julie LaVerne -- the leading lady whose racial background spells her undoing in the South of 1887 -- with promising fire. But she falls short with "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" as her rendition of the classic tune -- perhaps under orders from director Rob Ruggiero -- is breathy and mannered. Margherita is definitely capable of more, which becomes clear when she later assays, with gut-wrenching fragility, the deceptively homespun love song "Bill."

David Aron Damane is exemplary as the stevedore Joe, who finds both solace and an outlet for expressing the bitterness of oppression in "Ol' Man River." In the story's postscript, some 40 years later, Joe and his consort, the cook Queenie (an alternately drily witty and warm Andrea Frierson), engage in a terrific late-relationship love-spat with "I Still Suits Me."

Also notable is the work -- which they make look like play -- of Jennifer Knox as the sassy soubrette Ellie May and Danny Gardner as her avid, angular suitor, Frank Schultz. When the Trocadero nightclub scene rolls around, featuring their song-and-dance number ("Goodbye My Lady Love") -- crisply choreographed by Noah Racey -- you'll be awfully glad that Mr. and Mrs. Schultz managed, despite some initial antagonism, to get hitched.

Conversely, Wolpe is very uncaptainlike as Cap'n Andy! Indeed, he is way too conciliatory toward all concerned, including his hatchet-faced wife Parthy (whom Karen Murphy nails amusingly). In addition, the performance is so schticky that Wolpe appears as if he would be more at home on the Borscht Belt than on the Big River!