The Minnesota Centennial Showboat is doubly dated, at once an artifact of two different, increasingly distant periods in the past. First, there's the America of Mark Twain: the 19th-century era when showboats went up and down the Mississippi, bringing theatrical entertainment to towns that often didn't have much of their own.
Then, there's the America of Ozzie and Harriet: the mid-20th-century nation in which Minnesota celebrated its 100th anniversary as a state, and some folks (the hit musical Showboat fresh in their minds) thought it'd be a swell idea for theater students at the University of Minnesota to have a good old-fashioned showboat to hone their chops in a time-tested, family-friendly manner.
That was 1958, and now — after 57 seasons, two separate vessels, and innumerable boater hats — the Department of Theatre Arts & Dance is on a boat, motherfuckers, for the very last time. The farewell season, which just opened with John Miller-Stephany in the director's chair, reprises the showboat's inaugural play: Augustin Daly's iconic 1867 melodrama Under the Gaslight.
Say this for the show's young cast: They make showboating look like a lot of fun. The performers revel in this historically cheesy material, playing it straight and earning laughs on a lot of levels. The story sets Ray (Ryan Dean Maltz) — a well-to-do young bachelor who's kind of an ass (he said it) — against an opponent who's just plain evil, the dastardly Byke (Corey Quinn Farrell). Their conflict involves the murky parentage of the virtuous Laura (Olivia Wilusz), whose bright future with Ray clouds over as secrets are revealed.
The real hero of the show is plucky Civil War vet Snorkey (an infinitely chipper Austen Fisher). Friend and helpmate to all, he gets tied to train tracks in a scene that inspired innumerable knockoffs. Snorkey's rewarded by getting to romance the beautiful Peach Blossom, a girl of humble origins, who's played without any humility at all by Kendall Kent in one of the show's broadest and hence most successful performances.
The main show is entertaining enough, and then the players throw in several olios (miniature song-and-dance numbers that play between scenes). With amusingly elaborate costuming (designer Mathew J. LeFebvre uses elements of many past years' wearables), the olios bring down the house/boat.
The epic night of derring-do (with the olios and an intermission, Under the Gaslight clocks in at upward of 150 minutes) climaxes with a joyfully postmodern homage to the showboat's half-century history. One of the showboat's original players even appeared on opening night, a reminder of the long line of theatrical talent that's plied the deck in pinstripes.
After this summer of long goodbyes for Minnesota's ersatz old-timey entertainments, it's unclear when we'll next see a show with a credited "olio consultant." It's also unclear what exactly will happen to the showboat itself, which the U is looking to unload. In the meantime, it's enthusiastically recommended that you spend one last night Under the Gaslight before the utilities are cut off.
Under the Gaslight
Minnesota Centennial Showboat
200 Dr. Justus Ohage Blvd., St. Paul
Through August 27; 651-227-1100