This summer’s movies have kept me running back to live theater instead.  There’s a lavish new production of SHOWBOAT that just docked at the Shubert Theatre, the inaugural production of the Fiddlehead Theatre Company’s partnership with Citi Center– and it’s a stunning debut! I was struck by the beauty of the set before I ever heard a note from the enormous orchestra. No show has ever sounded better in this venue. The sets, costumes, video design are truly beautiful and the voices, choreography, direction first rate. There are a few casting/acting issues but this production based on Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel keeps rollin’ along, gathering steam, and leaving us absolutely jubilant by the end of Act II.

The show takes the form of a memoir as the youngest member of the Hawks family, now an old woman, literally lifts the lid on a treasure trove of recollections. Kathy St. George is perfect in the part, seated downstage right throughout the show, looking back on life aboard a Mississippi riverboat called the Cotton Blossom while her memories take shape before us. The saga spans generations and 40 years–from the gay 90’s to the roaring 20’s–in the lives of her extended family: relatives, friends, stagehands, and dockworkers as they wrestle with blood ties, racism, love and marriage all fueled by fortunes won and lost. Meg Fofonoff and Stacey Stephens have ably co-directed this three-hour extravaganza with many moving parts and a cast of 50 plus a 27 member orchestra.

The story is literally framed up onstage by way of three huge picture frames telescoped one inside the other against the back wall which is a giant video screen and on which is projected the river, moonbeams, and moments frozen in time as photographs or sketches; it’s simple, enchanting, and evocative. The riverboat is a multi-tiered, floating, filigreed wonder that glides in, and later doubles as a music hall. When SHOWBOAT debuted on Broadway in 1927, it was a landmark musical that placed Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s indelible score in service of serious themes wrapped around an entertainment.

So the musical at first feels a tad dated, and it took awhile for Act I to get the tone right, which is attributable here to the unevenness of the acting. John Davin as Cap’n Andy Hawks veers a bit close to caricature, while Dawn Tucker as his wife Parthy came off like Ma Kettle, and her re-appearance near the end of Act II is a jarring assault on an otherwise flawless musical number. Brian Kinnard lacked some gravitas as Joe, and the female lead Kim Corbett as the ingenue Magnolia Hawks lacked the necessary chemistry with Jeremiah James as the dashing Gaylord Ravenal.

But by ACT II, the show’s themes and tone gel, the acting settles down, Corbett carries Magnolia’s heartbreak and sadness with great dignity, and the production becomes a valentine to the glossy innocence of those old time musicals just beginning to dance their way across the dark issues percolating beneath their feet. The vocals throughout are almost universally superb. Sarah Hanlon as the tragic Julie, a mixed race beauty passing as white, sings the aching “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and later “Bill.” Kim Corbett’s crystalline soprano and Jeremiah James rich tenor sweep us sweetly along on “After the Ball,”  “Make Believe” and “You Are Love.” Though no one can forget the legendary Paul Robeson’s mournful deep voice in the 1936 film version of SHOWBOAT, Brian Kinnard’s pitchy baritone finally sinks in as Joe delivers the last reprise of the relentless “Ol’ Man River.”

The show leaves us on a high with a dazzling finale as this glittering ensemble erupts in a kick ass, out of this world Charleston number that brought the audience to its feet! It’s still the most exhilarating dance ever. Don’t miss the boat.  See SHOWBOAT at the Shubert through July 3!