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REVIEW: Under the Gaslight is a Grand Finale (MN Centennial Showboat)

A scene from Under the Gaslight. Photo by Dan Norman.

At the end of this summer, an era of Minnesota theatre comes to an end when the Minnesota Centennial Showboat closes its final season after 55 years on the waterfront. As things, began, so they end: the final production, Augustine Daly’s 1861 melodrama Under the Gaslight, is the same play that was performed on the Showboat during its 1958 inaugural season. It’s also one of the best Showboat productions that I have seen, rivaling its outstanding 1978 production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a lauded show that has gone down in the annals of Twin Cities theatre history.

Photo by Dan Norman.
Photo by Dan Norman.

Although Under the Gaslight has been staged on the Showboat several times over the decades, this was my own first time seeing it. The result, fueled by Director John Miller-Stephany’s casting, is one of the best Showboat productions that I have seen.

What’s not to like in the show? There is a plucky and nearly perfect heroine who saves one of the heroes after the villain ties him to the railroad tracks (this play introduced this now-clichéd plot device), a valiant disabled Civil War veteran, a depressed fiancé, a spoiled and disloyal cousin, an idiot judge, two evil villains, haughty high-society types, and a switched at birth plot. Saturday night’s performance also boasted a very responsive audience seeking to get the fiancé to see the error of his way, cheering the heroine and booing the villains, in performance tradition. To top it all off was an unexpected musical finale that brought the audience to its feet and joining in the dancing.

The evening was distinctly shaped by Andrew Cook’s musical direction and Linda Talcott Lee’s choreography, and enriched further by six classic olios managed by consultant Vern Sutton, who directed olios for numerous past Showboat productions. Olios are musical interludes between the scenes that have nothing to do with the plot and are known for great singing, lavish costuming, and often a proverbial punchline at the end.  My favorite olio in this production was the tune “A Girl for each Month in the Year,” which had an unexpected but hilarious ending.

The entire student cast excels in portraying their melodramatic roles and making extremely fast costume changes between melodrama and olios. Olivia Wiluze plays the heroine Laura Courtland who, after being shunned from high society, moves on to find a new purpose and independence in life. Mackenzie Shaw plays her dilettante cousin who remarkably matures at the end when she realizes her true origins. Ryan Dean Maltz plays the sometimes spineless and fickle fiancé and the audience can’t help wonder if Laura would not be better off without him. Austen Fischer plays the Civil War veteran named Snorkey, who is pure of heart…even if he is somewhat dim. Others in the cast include Laini Devin, Bradley Hildebrant, Josh Zwick, Corey Quinn Farrell, Kendall Kent, Katherine Fried, and Damion “Domino” D’Lorion Rosa.

Photo by Dan Norman.
Photo by Dan Norman.

This production is so much fun, you should make attending a priority even if was not the Showboat’s final season. The boat is docked at Harriet Island and provides a wonderful view of the Mississippi River and the St. Paul skyline. The Showboat opens an hour before show time and beverages are available on board while you take in the view.

Under the Gaslight plays through August 27 at the Minnesota Centennial Showboat, which is located at Harriet Island in St. Paul. 2:30 pm matinees every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday; evening performances at 8:00 pm on Wednesdays through Saturdays.

Bev Wolfe