There are murky waters ahead: This is the last year that the Minnesota Centennial Showboat will be a home to live performances, at least for the near future. With its latest show—Under the Gaslight by Augustin Daly—it’s easy to see why the venue’s good-natured offerings will be sorely missed.
Under the Gaslight is an 1868 melodrama, and the audience is more than encouraged to audibly boo the villains and cheer the heroes. The Minnesota Centennial Showboat is a tradition dating back to 1958, home to University of Minnesota students, many of whom are tackling their first run in professional theater. The tradition also includes traditional “olios”: short, exuberant musical numbers in between scenes.
The production’s costumes are gorgeous and intricate, thanks to Mathew J. LeFebvre. Every detail is a delight, from lacy dresses to elaborate frocks worn in the closing olio of the first act. The actors approach the show with professional gusto: Olivia Wilusz as Laura Courtland gives a powerful dimensionality to the travesties her heroine character faces; Ryan Dean Maltz shines as Ray Trafford, the hero torn between New York society and his love, Laura; and Corey Quinn Farren plays a mean villain who is met with boos at almost every entrance (which he should take as compliment).
But the real star is Austen Fisher as Snorkey, a down-on-his-luck but always upbeat Civil War veteran who has turned to being a messenger in hard times after losing an arm. Snorkey’s loveable character comes alive through Fisher as clever, thoughtful, and naïve. Always with a smile upon his face, he’s ready to help our hapless heroes. There are thunderous cheers upon almost every single entrance of his—before he even begins to speak.
The plot and its ending can be surmised within the first fifteen minutes, but that’s beside the point in an evening of good fun. The totality of design and intent here make the melodrama seem smarter than the sum of its parts. John Miller-Stephany’s purposeful direction makes us feel in very good hands, and the olios are clever and wonderful to watch.
It’s not very often that we find theatre quite like the Showboat’s in the Twin Cities, and it’s with a heavy heart that we say goodbye to it. This step back in time is pausing for now. But it’s not a teary-eyed goodbye; it’s one with festivity, song and dance. It’s the most fitting send-off.
Under the Gaslight runs through August 27. Tickets here.