Eric Schaefer's reinvention of the landmark 1927 musical is too streamlined for its own good.
But, in this case, too much has been pared away. The story of show folk plying their trade on the great river is severely compromised, and the work's powerful themes of emotional change and racism are shrouded or lost. What remains is an old-fashioned show biz story with stock characters, held together with good songs. The time passes quickly and pleasantly enough, but that doesn't seem enough for a show with this sort of pedigree.
True, Schaeffer's usual crisp guidance is evident in the cast's energetic, beautifully sung performances and the inventive staging. About two dozen actors do the work that has required two or three times that previously, and Jon Kalbfleisch's orchestra is a sleek 15-member ensemble, who play new charts from legendary arranger Jonathan Tunick that take Kern's music back to its roots.
In his boldest move, however, Schaefer has dispensed completely with the titular vessel. With James Kronzer's bleak, monochromatic, wooden slats evoking the interior of an old barn, the much-needed Mississippi River ambiance is non-existent.
Schaeffer has blended three versions of the show: the original 1927 production, the 1946 Broadway revival, and the Bern Opera adaptation from 2005. (The tune "Mis'ry's Comin' Round," which was cut after the first-ever performance, is now back in, as are previously excised scenes between the hardworking-but-cheerful servant Queenie and her "no-account" husband Joe.) However, the story and characters, so revolutionary in their day, feel like cardboard cutouts here, without the hothouse veil of the lush delta atmosphere or the time to develop dimension. And because the run time has been considerably shortened from over three hours, some major plot points are now unclear or explained in comically brief exposition.
Signature favorite Will Gartshore anchors the show as dashing riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal, who falls for Magnolia (Stephanie Waters), the singing daughter of the riverboat owner. Their lighthearted duet "Make Believe" is waltzy but not schmaltzy; "You Are Love," is positively operatic in scope and intensity, and "Why Do I Love You?" is exceptionally tender. Waters' crystalline voice soars in complement to Gartshore's power pumping of the big notes, as Tunick's instruments lay down an unobtrusive foundation.
Meanwhile, VaShawn Mcllwain powers his way through "Ol' Man River" in full aria mode. But it's primarily a technical, rather than emotional, achievement, emblematic of the show's weakness. This very serious tune seems out of sync with the shallow moments surrounding it when it first appears in act one.