When stevedore Joe belts out “Ol’ Man River,” you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. In fact, you’re aboard the Cotton Blossom, which provides entertainment for folks all along the Mississippi. Based on the 1926 novel by Edna Ferber, and subsequently adapted for three films (in 1929, 1936, and 1951), Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1927 “Show Boat” was among the first racially integrated musicals, with a score that also includes “Make Believe” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” Spanning the years 1887 to 1927, and ranging from Natchez, Miss., to Chicago, “Show Boat” is a challenge, but Fiddlehead Theatre’s long (just over three hours, including a 20-minute intermission) and lavish production now up at the Shubert delivers on every count.
It’s a sprawling and sometimes gritty story. Cap’n Andy Hawks is the owner of the Cotton Blossom, whose troupe includes husband-and-wife romantic leads Steve and Julie and comic couple Frank and Ellie. Andy is also the proud father of 18-year-old Magnolia, who, over mother Parthenia’s objections, falls for handsome riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal.
That’s not Andy’s only problem. The sheriff in Natchez has been told that Julie had a black mother. Miscegenation is a crime in Mississippi; thinking fast, Steve cuts her arm and swallows the resultant trickle so he can swear he has “Negro blood” in him. That saves the couple from jail, but they have to leave the show.
Eventually Magnolia and Gaylord marry and they, like Steve and Julie, move to Chicago, where the two wives are deserted by their husbands. The final decades zip by until Magnolia, Gaylord, and their Broadway-star daughter Kim are reunited on the Cotton Blossom. No reprieve for Steve and Julie, however.
Fiddlehead founding producing artistic director Meg Fofonoff and associate producing artistic director Stacey Stephens begin the story in 1954, with a 60ish Kim (Kathy St. George) seated downstage right and poring over a scrapbook, so that we seem to be looking at her memories. It’s a conceit that does no harm as long as the audience can grasp it.
That aside, this is a better “Show Boat” than any of the film adaptations. It has more songs, including two — the stevedores’ “Cotton Blossom” and Gaylord’s “Where’s the Mate for Me?” — that aren’t even listed in the program. The cast of 50 is eye-and-ear-poppingly professional; the 27-piece orchestra under music director Charles Peltz is spirited and sumptuous. Enunciation is exemplary; the amplified voices are natural if a little loud. Paul Tate dePoo III’s set is anchored by a two-story wrought-iron showboat that doubles as the balcony of the Trocadero nightclub in Chicago. The 300 period costumes designed by Stephens embrace tailcoats, bustles, newsboy caps, suspenders, and lots of colorful stripes. Projections on the back wall fill in the narrative with playbills, newspaper headlines, a stained-glass window for the convent school little Kim attends, and, of course, the rolling Mississippi.
The principal players, headed by John Davin’s over-the-top Andy and Dawn Tucker’s withering Parthenia, are an exuberant lot. Jeremiah James’s swaggeringly sincere Gaylord goes well with Kim Corbett’s ingénue Magnolia; Carl-Michael Ogle’s good-hearted Frank is nicely offset by Lindsay Sutton’s irrepressible flibbertigibbet of an Ellie. Bryan Miner acts nobly in his brief appearance as Steve; Sarah Hanlon’s Julie makes a heartbreaker out of “Bill.” Brian Kinnard delivers a raw, rough-edged, authoritative “Ol’ Man River”; Lindsay Roberts as Joe’s wife, cook Queenie, is unnerving in “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Roun” and raucous in “Queenie’s Ballyhoo.” The melodrama the troupe presents, “The Parson’s Bride,” is deliriously silly and outrageously overacted. Best of all is the closing Charleston kickline led by a shimmying grown-up Kim (Megan Yates). With black and white characters alternating in the line, it’s a wistful vision of an America united in song and dance.
Music by Jerome Kern. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on the novel by Edna Ferber. Directed by Meg Fofonoff and Stacey Stephens. Presented by Fiddlehead Theatre Company. At the Citi Shubert Theatre, through July 3. Tickets: $53-$75, 866-348-9738, www.fiddleheadtheatre.com
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.