Sunday, July 13, 2014

Centennial Showboat - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The Minnesota Centennial Showboat crew typically mines two thin but highly entertaining veins of art down on Harriet Island in St. Paul—the vintage popular song and the vintage melodrama. If you’d happened upon such stuff unexpectedly in Vicksburg or Davenport in the course of a family vacation, it would become material for a lifetime of fond reminiscences. But the Showboat has been putting on such entertainments for more than half a century—with a few well-deserved breaks for floods and fires—and we tend to take it for granted.

Their latest production, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, lacks existential ennui, is devoid of gender-bending twists, and explores no new ground theatrically. No one imagined that it would. Yet the place begins to exert its charm the moment you get out of the car and stroll down to the banks of the Mississippi in the evening light, with the Jonathan Paddleford steamboat bobbing in the foreground and the lights of St. Paul glittering from the far side of the river.

At what other venue can you spend the intermission sipping a beer as you watch giant logs float toward you down the river from Fountain Cave, Hidden Falls, Fort Snelling, and other places upstream, speculating on how big a “boom” they’ll make when then disappear beneath your feet and then crash into the Showboat’s metal hull?

But “the play’s the thing.” Right? Well, not exactly. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of those parlor dramas, with lots of entrances and exits and a paper-thin plot. If you’re expecting something on the order of Benedict Cumberpatch as Sherlock Holmes, you’ll be disappointed. But the Showboat players do a very good job of carrying through with the tale, hamming things up only slightly, exhibiting a degree of finesse in their comic timing, and letting the audience do the rest with its cheering and hissing at all the right places. 

Within the  constraints of the idiom, Christian Boomgaarden succeeds in evoking an element of fiendish insanity in his portrayal of Mr. Hyde, and Nike Kadri might also be singled out for her comic turn as a maid being interrogated by the police.

Then there are the vocal interludes, which make up at least half of the production’s running time. The songs are from the mid-to-late nineteenth century, I would guess. The painted backdrops are impressive, the harmonies are rich, and the solo voices aren’t half bad. The tunes have nothing to do with one another, and absolutely nothing to do with the plot. Some are hilarious, others are infused with an almost childlike glee. I especially enjoyed "The Art Olio," a number set in old Persia during the course of which Bear Brummel attempts to rhapsodize while being caressed far too many of Katherine Fried's hands.

Other songs carry titles such as “The Naughty Little Clock,” “Eve Wasn’t Modest,” and “The Saga of the Two Little Sausages.” 

As I listened to the one that raises the question “who ate Napoleons with Josephine when Bonaparte was away?”, I was reminded of a scratchy 78-rpm record about a half-inch thick we used to listen to. It was the width of a dinner plate, but there was only one song on it: “Who Played Poker with Pocahontas When John Smith Went Away?” Someone ought to research the connections between the two songs. (I’m sure there’s a Ph.D. thesis in there somewhere.)

Among many other details let me mention just one or two: The costumes on display during “The Calendar Parade” number are a sight to behold; and the color of the potion Dr. Jekyll drinks from a glass beaker at a crucial moment in the drama is the perfect mad-scientist green, midway between chartreuse and pea soup. A variety of little comic touches--for example, the changing mirror in the upstairs laboratory--ensure that though the story line is often predictable, it is never dull. 

We emerged into the night, carrying the energy and enthusiasm of the production like a warm glow. We'd been exposed to a large vial of infectious fun....  

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