Boats ‘n’ shows

University of Minnesota theater students are boarding the Minnesota Centennial Showboat this summer for a production of ‘The Vampire!’

The cast of “The Vampire” rehearses Monday night on the Minnesota Centennial Showboat. The show runs June 15 – Aug. 25.

Blake Leigh

The cast of “The Vampire” rehearses Monday night on the Minnesota Centennial Showboat. The show runs June 15 – Aug. 25.

by Sarah Harper


What: “The Vampire!”

When: June 15 through Aug. 25

Where: Harriet Island, Mississippi River, St. Paul

Cost: $18-25


The Minnesota Centennial Showboat has a long history. For more than 50 years, it’s been docked on Harriet Island, which sits in the neck of the Mississippi River next to downtown St. Paul. In that window of time, the Showboat has become renowned for its melodramatic shows.

This weekend, and for the rest of the summer, University of Minnesota students will perform “The Vampire!,” a dizzying Victorian romp set in Scotland.

“I don’t think it’s going to win any prizes for literary merit, but boy is it a lot of fun,” said director, University instructor and Showboat veteran Peter Moore, whose expertise and jokey demeanor resulted in a grand, hokey eyeful of a production.

“It’s a spectacle,” he said, “a complete spectacle.”

Moore partnered with Vern Sutton, a local opera legend. As the music director, Sutton ensures that the spectacle sounds as good as it looks.

Written in the early 19th century, “The Vampire!” borrows a lot of its gimmicks from that time period.

Olios are a hallmark of Showboat productions: the old-fashioned numbers, scooped up from the days of vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley, punctuate the action. The songs have no bearing on the plot or character development. Olios are just for fun, and fun they are — in one, lead actor Ryan Colbert dances in a hot dog suit.

“They’re like little treats, little breaks sometimes. When the play gets so serious, the olios get more whacky,” said Colbert, the third-year Bachelor of Fine Arts student who plays Lord Ruthven.

Charlotte Calvert, a fourth-year BFA student, said the production itself is a nice break.

As opposed to the more modern and edgy shows the theater department puts on during the year, the showy productions at the boat allow and encourage actors to commit to the ridiculous style of melodrama. The genre requires them to overact and exaggerate.

The nature of the summer show means the production schedule imitates that of professionals. The weekend-long run is standard for college productions, but professionals perform the same productions over and over for weeks and months at a time.

“Rarely do people in college get the opportunity to do eight shows a week for, this year, 10 weeks in a row,” said Joseph Pyfferoen, a fourth-year theater student who plays Lord Ronald.

And rarely do college students get to spend their entire summer on a boat, something that isn’t escaping the company of graduate and undergraduate students.

It’s not just the actors who can brag about the best summer job ever: Scenic designer Meg Kissel, a third-year Master of Fine Arts student, found that working on the boat provided some unique and ultimately rewarding challenges. Kissel had to adapt to the boat’s structure to create her highly mechanical (and colorful) set.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to get to work in a venue like this again,” Kissel said. “But I enjoy it, very much so.”