Float back in time with Asolo's Show Boat

Based on the novel by Edna Ferber, with music by Jerome Kern and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Show Boat has been reinvented by Asolo Repertory Theatre. Audiences have been moved by the show's timeless classics, including “Ol’ Man River," “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Make Believe,” tastefully performed by the singers and the 11-piece orchestra led by musical director F. Wade Russo.

The cast of 25 well-versed actors and actresses draw you into a story of the people who live and work on the Cotton Blossom. The Cotton Blossom takes their shows to towns along the Mississippi River. [Photos by Frank Atura.]

The musical follows the lives of the performers on the Cotton Blossom during a transformative period in U.S. history from 1887 to 1927. Show Boat explores many poignant topics, including racial diversity in marriage and economic hardships that still challenge the world today.

It is a graceful production that beautifully fills the Asolo Rep’s Mertz Theatre, visually and musically, and it's wonderfully intimate too. At any moment you could look right over your shoulder and someone was there crooning soft lyrics, luring you into the occasion.

At its core, Show Boat is about Magnolia, the daughter of Captain Andy and his starchy wife, Parthy Ann. Magnolia falls for the charming and handsome Gaylord Ravenal, a gambler who leads her into a loving but troubling relationship. These two have what's far from a perfect-picture relationship, but you can sense the sincerity and tenderness between Marissa McGowan as Magnolia and leading man Ben Davis as Gaylord. Their voices stir warm feelings during “Only Make Believe” and “You are Love.”

Daniella Dalli as the troubled Julie LaVerne and a big sister to Magnolia, evokes a very different feeling with her vocal skills. She breaks your heart, singing “Bill,” and leads Magnolia and the kitchen staff in a rousing rendition of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” Though all the performances were stunning, I found myself the most moved by Michael James Leslie as the deckhand.

In all I adored Asolo's production of Show Boat. The set was beautifully transformed into the back deck of the Cotton Blossom, with curved wooden staircases and fading paint. The costumes by Amy Clark’ were full of eye-catching color and style, and the lighting set the mood perfectly, making us feel at some moments like we were sitting in the moonlight pondering our own thoughts.

In the end, love didn’t quite conquer all, but love did return to start anew.

Show Boat runs through Dec. 29. Tickets are $29-$75. Asolo is at 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Tickets are also available by calling the box office at 941-351-8000 or 800-361-8388 or by visiting asolorep.org.

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