A cast of 50, a 28-piece orchestra, 300 period costumes and a set that encompasses the Mississippi River: All of these elements are part of “Show Boat,” Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s epic musical of romance, racism, and the resiliency of the human spirit.
But the production that opens at the Shubert Theatre is not part of a Broadway tour. It’s the work of Fiddlehead Theatre Company, which began as a community theater in Norwood, and is now, according to founder and co-producing artistic director Meg Fofonoff, realizing her dream of producing in a Broadway-caliber house, where the company will be in residence for its 2016-17 season.
While the size and scope of “Show Boat” would be daunting for most local theater troupes, Fofonoff and her co-producing artistic director, Stacey Stephens, “never do anything small. Our production of ‘Ragtime’ [in 2012 at the Strand Theatre] included a cast of 43 and at 21-piece orchestra,” says Stephens. “This is a challenge, but we’ve been preparing for it for years.”
The Shubert Theatre became available when the Boston Lyric Opera decided to leave after 18 seasons there. Fiddlehead, meanwhile, had ended its residency at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester, where it had performed for three years. Its most recent production, “Rent,” was staged at the Back Bay Events Center.
Fofonoff says Josiah A. Spaulding, president and CEO of the Citi Performing Arts Center, was enormously helpful, and made it possible for Fiddlehead to schedule its next three shows at the Shubert: “Show Boat” will be followed by “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert” (Sept. 30-Oct. 9) and “Carnival” (May 5-14, 2017).
“I was impressed with the work they did at the Strand, and their recent production of ‘Rent,’ ” says Spaulding. “We are stepping up to provide them with marketing and promotional support, which Meg tells me is already having a marked increase in ticket sales.”
“Show Boat,” which is based on the 1926 novel by Edna Ferber, was one of the first Broadway musicals to take on the topic of racism and to feature a cast of both black and white performers. Kern’s lush score includes such classics as “Ol’ Man River,” “Make Believe,” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” The story follows a troupe of actors on the Cotton Blossom, a show boat that performs in towns along the Mississippi River. In the course of the story, an unlikely pair meet and fall in love, and a star performer is banished from the boat when her mixed race is revealed.
“I wish I could say the story of racism was not relevant today,” says Fofonoff. “But what makes this such a great musical is the combination of a powerful and sometimes unpleasant look at racism, combined with a beautiful love story and a message of hope for the future.”
Fofonoff and Stephens, who are co-directing “Show Boat,” are committed to creating a production that meets the expectations of audiences coming to the Shubert Theatre, but they don’t want them to be overwhelmed by the set and lights.
“At the heart of the musical are these relationships between flawed individuals,” says Stephens. “Our goal is to tie that magnificent music to the emotions of the characters so that the audience can relate to these people and their journeys.”
Walt Whitman in New Orleans
Boston actress and singer Robin JaVonne Smith finished a tour de force performance as Mad Queen May in Beau Jest Theater’s “Wild Williams” at the Charlestown Working Theater last weekend and just four days later opened a completely different show. “Dreambook,” a play with music about poet Walt Whitman’s time in New Orleans, is having its world premiere at Boston Playwrights Theatre, presented by Fort Point Theatre Channel, June 17-25 (Tickets: $20, 866-811-4111, www.fortpointheatrechannel.org/index/).
“I like the fact that people are familiar with Walt Whitman, but they may not be familiar with the time he spent in the magical city of New Orleans,” says Smith.
The basic conflict of the play revolves around the rivalry between Whitman and William Walker, who were competing for the editor’s chair at the New Orleans Daily Crescent in 1848. But beneath that framing is another compelling story: that of the visual artist Jules Lion, a free person of color who became the first daguerreotypist in New Orleans, and Anna Lion (played by Smith), a local black teenager.
“Anna Lion did exist,” says Smith, “and we have some information about her, but no full story exists. She clearly had a lot of spunk, so I’m having a lot of fun with that. She doesn’t hesitate to question Whitman about his poetry and has dreams that go beyond the borders of New Orleans.”
The play features a fictional story based on playwright Dan Osterman’s historical research. Composer Nick Thorkelson wrote songs for the play that have a contemporary soul/funk groove. Director Jaime Carrillo adds to the complexity by casting all the male roles with women, except one.
Poetic license for Gammons
Visually imaginative director and designer David R. Gammons has been named producing artistic director of the Poets’ Theatre, joining a team that includes president and artistic director Bob Scanlan, executive director Ben Evett, and literary director David Gullette. Gammons, who has earned accolades for dozens of productions with SpeakEasy Stage, Actors’ Shakespeare Project, Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, and others, assumes the role after his breathtaking design for the Poets’ Theatre’s “Beckett Women: Ceremonies of Departure.” Gammons will direct poet Anne Carson’s “Antigonick” (March 30-April 15). For the complete Poets’ Theatre season schedule, go to www.poetstheatre.org.
Another Tony for Sirkin
Congratulations to Boston-based Broadway producer Spring Sirkin, who stepped up on the stage of the Beacon Theatre Sunday night to collect her third Tony Award, this time as a member of the producing team for “A View From the Bridge.” In her career, Sirkin has also received Tonys for “Master Class” and “Skylight,” and nominations for 10 other productions.
Presented by Fiddlehead Theatre Company. At the Shubert Theatre, June 22-July 3. Tickets: $53-$75, 866-348-9738, www.citicenter.org
Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.