"Show Boat" is an 87-year-old musical about life in 1887. But Michael James Leslie said it still resonates.
"Ultimately it's about fear of outsiders," Leslie said. "What's miraculous is that we're still dealing with that today, that idea that's in this musical chestnut from 1927."
Leslie plays Joe in the upcoming production of "Show Boat" that opens the Asolo Repertory Theatre season next week. Previews start Tuesday. Official opening night is Nov. 15.
"Show Boat" was revolutionary when it hit Broadway stages in 1927. It's generally credited with being the first "musical." Before "Show Boat," Broadway show that had music in them were generally fluffy operettas.
"It's brilliant, just totally brilliant for its time," said Wade Russo, the musical director for the Asolo Rep production. "I mean, this was the era of shows like 'Naughty Marietta' and 'The Student Prince.' "
"Show Boat" had its origins in a 1926 novel by Edna Ferber. Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern acquired the rights from a wary Ferber and had the show up on a Broadway stage the next year.
"The book started being serialized in the spring of 1926, Russo said. "In August 1926 it came out in book form. By December, they had the contracts signed to turn it into a musical."
Hammerstein and Kern teamed up with Flo Ziegfeld, the Broadway impresario known for lavish but unsubstantial entertainment. Ferber, already uncertain about turning her dramatic novel into a musical, was further concerned about Ziegfeld being the producer.
"But he was the only one who could do it," Russo said, "because he was one of the only producers who had African-Americans in his theaters."
"Show Boat" was an immediate sensation with audiences and critics thanks to its complex story of love and racism, and thanks to such songs as "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man."
"The people on the show boat are in their own world that's basically perfect while they're on the river," Leslie said. "Then the real world intrudes with all its problems."
Even though the story is gritty, especially compared to the other musical shows of its day, "Show Boat" is ultimately hopeful, Leslie said.
And, he said, the Asolo production does justice to one of the most important works of American theater.
"It's a great cast," Leslie said. "It's always great to be in a room when you're surrounded by all this great talent. There's nothing better.
"And besides, I get to sing 'Ol' Man River.' "
Details: Nov. 12-Dec. 29 at the Mertz Theatre, FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (except 2 p.m. Dec. 24 only), 8 p.m. 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. 2 p.m. shows on Nov. 29 and Dec. 27. No 2 p.m. show Nov. 13. No shows Dec. 25. Tickets: $31-75. Information: 941-351-8000, www.asolorep.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.