Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Based on a Story & Characters by Damon Runyon
Directed by Robert J. Eagle and Eileen Grace
Choreographed by Eileen Grace
Musical Directors Julia I. Liu and Jeffrey P. Leonard
At Robinson Theater, Waltham High School, through June 17, 1999

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

 I've been waiting all my life to see a great production of that monument of  musicals, "Show Boat".  Thanks to Bob Eagle and his Reagle Players-- and to Livent, Inc, whose Broadway reconstruction was the source for most of the Reagle staging--I  now have.  I can't praise this production too highly.  It was every bit as wonderful as I had hoped-- a performance packed with all the skill and heart and ambition and good intentions that characterize the best of this American art form.  It was also an object lesson in the mixed messages of showbiz success. Eagle went to the top of the profession to secure hal prince's Magnolia, Gay Willis, who is simply unsurpassible, and the celebrated Broadway Joe, Andre Solomon-Glover.  Willis is not only a suberb singer, floating a silvery tone while phrasing for maximun emotional expressiveness and absoloute clarity of diction, but a consummate actor.  She was instantly convincing as a starry-eyed kittenish teen ager, and as a middle aged grande dame of the stage. 

In America, with a few extraordinary exceptions, the races may come together for money, but not for love.Act one of "Showboat" boldly tackles the cruelest contradictions in American values-- honor and romance and commerce, democratic ideals and racial oppression-- and illustrates how love and loyalty and artistic expression are crushed between the opposing forces.  Act two reintegrates romance and commerce-- honor has been shown up as impossible over the long term-- and celebrates Broadway as the expression of newer, freer, better art forms: but this is an illusion, compounded of sentimentality and glitz. The celebration can work in the theatre: Susan Stroman's brilliant choreography, recreated for Reagle by Scott Taylor, constucts a social history icould only have been created in the roaring twenties, when promoted by the roaring prosperity of the 
in which the arts of african origin are first denegrated and parodied, then raided for elements that can be incorporated into   as the second act both revealed how and as big a let down as is inevitable-- because eretofore dominated by European operas, popular musical theater was forever changed in 1927 with the arrival of ''Show Boat,'' a Southern tale of romance, race, and river life.

''Show Boat'' - the first American musical that integrated lyrics, spoken dialogue, and a complex story line - is timeless; so long as there is hatred and bigotry, its relevance will remain. The 1927 Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical, based on a novel by Edna Ferber, traces the romance between Magnolia and Gaylord Ravenal on the Cotton Blossom, a showboat operated by Magnolia's father, Cap'n Andy. The musical takes us from the Reconstruction era to the eve of the Great Depression with the Mighty Mississippi as the backdrop for this slice of riverboat life: two-bit gamblers, punch-drunk townies, and show-biz vagabonds.

Since its creation, the musical has had quite a trajectory, including several Broadway renditions and a pair of film versions. Such profusion speaks to its enduring likability: lovable characters, a sumptuous score, period costumes, a happy ending, and the transfixing anthem ''Ol' Man River.''

The Reagle Players' ''Show Boat,'' now at Waltham High School through Aug. 14, offers a fast-paced version, capably delivering rousing, familiar tunes such as ''Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man'' and ''Dance the Night Away.'' The elaborate scenery adds to the ambience.

Andre Solomon-Glover as the solemn Joe and Mike O'Carroll as the ebullient Cap'n Andy are stand-

outs. Solomon-Glover delivers ''Ol' Man River'' with a rich, deep texture. Watching this towering and robust figure is a bit like watching a fire crackle in a fireplace: absolutely riveting.

O'Carroll as the impresario is charismatic at every turn, from the most static to the most fast-paced. For instance, during the Cotton Blossom's sell-out opener at Natchez, Miss., the actors abandon the stage when they hear gunshots, forcing Cap'n Andy to assume every role and complete the production by himself. Both wild-eyed storyteller and actor, O'Carroll, a cross between Wilford Brimley and Brian Dennehy, flails his arms and belts out lines like a man possessed. It's downright funny, especially when he falls on his wide rump, exhausted, gasping for just enough breath to yell, ''No refunds!''

The husband-wife duo of Kirby and Beverly Ward, who play the comic vaudeville-style dancers Frank Schultz and Ellie May Chipley, add some welcome spunk to the choreography. Frank and Ellie strut their stuff in harmonious synch and flirt under veils of snips and one-liners.

As for the central romance, however, Gay Willis as Magnolia and Scott Mikita as Gaylord Ravenal seem stiff, which diminishes the credibility of their love-at-first-sight relationship.

What's worse is the musical's mixed politics. On the one hand, it sends a progressive message on race relations in its subplot about interracial marriages, which at the time were illegal. On the other hand, it renders poor service to the idea of women's rights. Magnolia's strength of character is undermined when she lets her deadbeat husband back into her life. That decision is unsettling today, but it reflects the musical's era.

In this production presented in a high school, the Reagle Players pull off quite a feat, proving once again why ''Show Boat'' persists as one of the American musicals: The combination of ballyhoo, melodrama, and stellar performances can whet even the most jaded of theater appetites.
Oh, yes-- almost forgot. Jeffrey Leonard's pit band plays the heck out of Loesser's fabulous score.