It's undeniably one of the greatest songs in the history of musical theater, but "Ol' Man River" presents a challenge that must be daunting for any actor who songs it in "Show Boat."
Much like Hamlet's "To be or not to be," soliloquy, "Ol' Man River" is familiar, and has been interpreted so many different ways that it has to be nearly impossible for an actor to make it sound fresh and immediate.
But when Michael James Leslie delivers his heart-rending and powerful version of the song in the current Asolo Repertory Theatre's production of "Show Boat," he shakes the audience's soul. His performance is traditional but distinctive, and encourages us to listen to the song in a new way.
When he reprised the song on opening night, the audience interrupted him mid-song by bursting into applause.
It's the most emotionally stirring moment of the show, but only one of many admirable aspects and moments in a fine production of one of the most important shows ever created.
"Show Boat," which Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern based on Edna Ferber's novel, is generally credited as the show that re-defined the musical and invented the genre as we know it now.
The intertwining plotlines cover four decades in the lives of people associated with a Mississippi River show boat, and include examinations of racial discrimination and a beautifully tragic love story
The Asolo Rep production, directed by Rob Ruggiero, is packed with textured and entertaining performances. Besides Leslie, standouts include Joel Blum and Captain Andy Hawks (he was nominated for a Tony Award for the same role in the 1994 Broadway revival), Ben Davis as Gaylord Ravenal, the rakish but unsuccessful professional gambler, and Marissa McGowan as Magnolia, the innocent girl who falls in love with Gaylord.
Michael Schweikardt's sets are lovely and appropriately old-fashioned, summoning the eras of both the action of the story and the premiere of the musical and Mary Clark's copious costumes a enhance every character.
The ensemble work is strong, and the harmonies are beautiful.
There are one or two oddly amateurish performances is smaller roles. They're especially noticeable because of the power of the rest of the cast.
The real stars are Kern and Hammerstein, who wrote a show backed with timeless song (besides "Ol' Man River," there's "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," delivered beautifully by McGowan and others, and "Bill," which gets an emotional rendering from Daniella Dali) and integrated song and story in a way no one had ever thought to do before, and that no one has done better since.
It's a reminder of what the overworked term "classic" truly means.
Details: It runs through Dec. 29 at the Mertz Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday 8 p.m. 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. There are 2 p.m. shows on Nov. 29 and Dec. 27. There's no evening performance on Christmas Eve and no shows at all on Christmas day. Tickets are $31-75. Call 941-351-8000, or go to www.asolorep.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.