The Minnesota Centennial Showboat is chugging into its 10th season at Harriet Island in St. Paul -- even if the boat is now a barge that no longer chug-chug-chugs along. Nevertheless, a tradition begun in 1958 continues this summer with University of Minnesota students mounting a traditional melodrama.
"We're a museum," said Vern Sutton, who directs the musical olios between acts.
For University of Minnesota students, the showboat is about the best summer job in town. They will do 80 shows by season's end on Aug. 25. The pay is good and students get experience with a long run -- something the university does not do during the school year.
The crew and cast this summer are staging "The Vampire!" which dates to 1820. Long before Bram Stoker decked out Dracula in proper evening wear and made him vulnerable to garlic and sunlight, British writer J.R. Planché had placed a vampire in the misty, spooky moors of Scotland.
"He's the first vampire in a kilt," said Peter Moore, who is directing his third showboat production. "The antiquity of the show is the fun of it."
Moore said he's particularly happy with the technical aspects of the play, with goddesses descending, rolling waters, boats on stage and storms. Painted backdrops are used to set scenes.
"It's a chance for the shop to shine," he said.
The olios have been part of the tradition since the beginning of the old showboat. These musical interludes depend on the talents of the cast (is there a great high tenor? an operatic soprano?) and have wonderful elements of filigree. A few years ago, the singers had derrières that lit up for a performance of "Glow Worm." Last year, singers were dressed as hot dogs for "The Frankfurter Song."
Sutton, who retired from the university's Music Department in 2003 after 47 years, loves the chance to dig up old music and create these little gems. He ticked off a couple of favorite titles -- "Who Ate Napoleons With Josephine While Bonaparte was Away?" and "Eve Wasn't Modest Until She Ate the Apple."
Sutton trained as a musicologist, but he said he learned the olio game from Robert Moulton, a legendary choreographer and director in the theater department. Moulton directed the olios beginning with the boat's first year.
"This is the best singing cast I've had," said Sutton, who has done the olios since 2002. "I've wanted for years to do four famous belt songs from the early 20th century, and this year I have four belters in the cast."
The old showboat was moored at the University from 1958 to 1993. It needed serious renovation and was moved to Harriet Island. Fire destroyed the vessel, but supporters public and private raised money to build a replica -- albeit a barge and not an engine-driven boat. Shows began again in 2002.
"You really get something more than just a play here," Moore said, sitting on the back deck and looking up at the St. Paul skyline. "The showboat is an event."