Dandelion seeds waft in clumps through the air—the summer’s snow—as river scum swirls in eddies around the Minnesota Centennial Showboat’s fat rump.
It’s a sliminess shared by the antagonist of this year’s play; the wayward seeds matching the interrupted journeys of the otherwise good, but sometimes stupid and misguided, characters.
The first boat burnt to a crisp in 2000 due to a stray welding spark, a dramatic turn of events that is only outdone by the antics performed on its stage.
“Sweet Revenge!” is a melodrama, drawing on the exaggerated acting of early 1900s nickel theater or Susan Lucci.
“It’s a style we don’t see anymore; actors today want everything to be very realistic and naturalistic,” director Peter Moore said. “At the time, people wanted glamour and excitement—they needed an escape.”
“Sweet Revenge!,” with its storms, gunfights and general theme of decency attempting to overcome devilry succeeds easily in that regard. Throw in eight musical olios, little numbers unrelated to plot that historically cover scene changes, and you are left with a taste of everything.
“It’s fun, and really quite a challenge to have all this legitimate singing and then heightened language and heavy action,” sophomore theater major Maeve Moynihan said.
Moynihan plays Bunco, a rowdy orphan girl who helps protect an innocent shopgirl and derail the plans of a bank robber to steal the heart of a married woman.
That is the tip of the iceberg in this convoluted plotline that leaves plenty of room for last-minute heroics, all while peppered with antiquated cornball language that keeps it more family friendly than HBO-ready.
The play is being performed in close to the exact way it would have been during the life of its playwright, Lillian Mortimer. However, to keep it accessible to all audiences and not get too heavy, the murder of a couple’s baby was removed.
“It’s kind of dark, but that’s where the fun and excitement comes from,” Moore said.
Well, that and musical director Vern Sutton’s olios. This year’s consist of vignettes about trollop opera singers vying for attention, a parade of diseases from typhoid to malaria and a woman using her admirers as shopping carts. (The shopping olio involves four cast members throwing gift-wrapped purchases across the stage to each other, a feat whose success is probably grounded in a break time foursquare habit.)
“There is no guidebook on olios,” Sutton said.
He may be the closest thing to one, given that he’s directed olios for over a dozen of the Showboat’s productions.
It’s under his tutelage that we amusingly get to see the man we know in one setting as John Livingstone, a loathsome conman and bank robber, step out from behind the curtain as a member of a joyously hokey barbershop quartet.
“I never know what I can do until auditions” Sutton said. “This is the first year we’ve had four men who can sing a barbershop quartet.”
Graduated senior Joseph Pyfferoen’s Livingstone might be the main character of the play even though he’s the villain.
His Livingstone is a Boris Badenov, easily imagined leaving a damsel tied to the railroad tracks in the path of an oncoming train.
It is towards him that audiences are encouraged to boo and hiss in the manner of the Showboat’s historical predecessors.
Despite the pageantry and variety of the Showboat’s productions, one thing remains the same: The cast’s opening “Here Comes the Showboat” greeting to the audience.
What: “Sweet Revenge! (Or No Mother to Guide Her)”
When: Thursday through August 24
Where: Minnesota Centennial Showboat, Harriet Island Road, St. Paul