Cincinnati’s Showboat Majestic, owned by the city and operated by Landmark Productions, is 85 years old. It first floated out from an upriver boatyard on the spring rise in 1923. Nowadays it’s the last original floating theater in America, still either tiny and intimate or tiny and cramped depending on your appetite for nostalgia, although both its theatrical equipment and its patron amenities (meaning comfortable seating) have been seriously upgraded over the years.
The landmark musical Show Boat is four years younger than the Majestic. Its Jerome Kern score gifted posterity with an uncommon number of unforgettable songs, including “Make Believe,” “Bill,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine” and the iconic, ironic “Old Man River.” Its romantic libretto by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel, touches on miscegenation, alcoholism and racial strife and features a gambler hero who deserts his wife and child — a far cry from the piffle common in 1920s musicals.
Landmark producer Tim Perrino has chosen to celebrate one milestone with another — the first ever production of Show Boat on board the Showboat. This noble notion has led to a somewhat less than noble result. Some of the songs play well. As roustabout Joe, Royce Winters’ rich, rolling bass-baritone mixes joy, pain and inevitability into a moving “Old Man River.” As soubrette Julie, Brooke Rucidio makes “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine” persuasive, but she muffs the Blues anthem “Bill.” Rebecca Freshwater and Michael Shawn Starks are young lovers Magnolia and Gaylord. He sings “You Are Love” well enough. She acts with one girlish voice and sings with a different, fuller one that’s heavy on warbling vibrato.
Characterizations are perfunctory at best, and the pace set by director Denny Reed dissolves from disorder in Act One to a jerky chaos of scene-changing blackouts in Act Two. Still, these coming-of-autumn nights are breezy on the Majestic’s deck — and old man Ohio, he just keeps rollin’ along.
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