Olios are the stars of the show on the Showboat

Part of the Sweet Revenge cast sings an olio.
Part of the Sweet Revenge cast sings an olio.
Photo by Michal Daniel
Each summer, the Showboat Players -- made up of University of Minnesota students -- puts on an old-time melodrama on the Minnesota Centennial Show in St. Paul. While the play is an important attraction, those involved know that one of the great appeals of the performances happens between the scenes.

That's when the action is given over to olios. These dramatized songs have been part of theater for centuries. Initially started to cover the sound of set shifting behind the scenes, they have long since taken on a life of their own.

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"I've always enjoyed doing them," says Vern Sutton, the local theater legend responsible for selecting and directing the musical numbers for a number of years, including the ones running between this year's Sweet Revenge.

"I build the olios around the singers and the period of the play. Everything we are doing this year is all American. It is an American play that takes place in 1905. Everything we are doing was written between 1895 and 1915," Sutton says.

Sutton also considers the talents and skills of the company when selecting the songs. That includes the one exception to the collection of American songs for this year. "I'm doing an opera olio. I've never done it before, but I've never had singers capable of singing opera. This year, I have three women who can sing it," he says.

Sutton uses a mixture of sources to find the songs for each edition of the Showboat. Some come from his own collection ("I've been doing this for over 50 years," he notes) and some are drawn from the collections of the downtown Minnesota Public Library. "It has one of the best old-sheet collections of pop music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is still in handwritten card catalogue on the third floor," he says.

And technology has helped. A recently digitized collection from Johns Hopkins has made it possible for Sutton to do research from his own home. 

When casting, "we err on the side of singers," says director Peter Moore. "Generally, the olios are really what people come to see. We are looking for a sense of energy."

The show is a full-on melodrama. "You have to play this material straight. It is just a chance for the actors to do some acting that is passionate and big. It still has to be filled and honest. That's one of the challenges for young actors -- they are so steep in method and movie acting -- to be large and passionate and grand, and to make it honest and not hammy," Moore says.

The mixture of a theatrical piece and the between-scenes olios provides plenty of challenges, both for the actors and the production team.

"You have to be aware of quick-change timing at all times, and always keep in mind what the closure will be on the garment," says costume designer Jonathan Singer. "The changes are to come across as an illusion or magic trick. The audience is always amazed when they see a 30-second quick change happen."

For Singer, the location also provides an interesting challenge. "There are no dressers on the Boat, just the actors. This is a major part of the design, which has to be nailed by the designer and shop.

Moore and Sutton work together on their segments of the show to build a unified evening of theater.

"When we put it all together, I will make suggestions. Ultimately, I am responsible for the entire production. I may suggest bits, but the music and selections I leave to him. I really trust him," Moore says.

Sutton, who spent decades teaching at the U, enjoys spending time with the students. "That's the only thing I miss about teaching. I miss the youth. I miss working with young people. I get six weeks where I get to be around their infectious idealism and enthusiasm," he says.


Sweet Revenge
Through Aug. 24
Minnesota Centennial Showboat, Harriet Island, St. Paul
For tickets and information, call 651.227.1100 or visit online.
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Minnesota Centennial Showboat

200 Dr. Justus Ohage Blvd.
St. Paul, MN 55107



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