Broadway’s Ciarán Sheehan analyzes his ‘Show Boat’ role

Last summer, Broadway’s Ciarán Sheehan delivered a heartfelt performance as Billy Bigelow in “Carousel” at Reagle Music Theatre in Waltham. This month, the acclaimed Dublin-born actor, singer, producer, healer returns to Reagle from July 6-16 to star as dashing Gaylord Ravenal in the timeless Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical, “Show Boat.”  Boston’s Sarah Oakes Muirhead co-stars as Gaylord’s love interest, Magnolia.

“Show Boat” is based on the epic Edna Ferber novel following three generations of the Hawks family on the Cotton Blossom river boat. The iconic 1887 love story chronicles the fortunes of Magnolia, the naïve captain’s daughter, her troubled husband Gaylord, and the performers, stagehands, and dock workers whose lives are affected by the ever-changing social current along the Mississippi.

As his fans know, Ciarán starred in more than 1,000 performances of the Broadway and Toronto productions of “Phantom of the Opera.”  This past winter, he teamed up with three other “Phantoms” (Brent Barrett, Franc D’Ambrosio, Marcus Lovett) to present “The Four Phantoms,” a touring concert of Broadway and beyond.  A PBS special is planned.

More recently, he performed just a few weeks ago at The Irish Repertory Theatre’s Gala in New York, saluting the work of Stephen Sondheim alongside such stellar Broadway artists as Angela Lansbury, Rebecca Luker, and Len Cariou.  His solo was a tender “Johanna” from “Sweeney Todd.”

He has also stretched his acting muscles to appear in the independent film “The Dinosaur,” starring Ed Asner, and the projected web series, “A Couple of Guys.” 

In addition to mounting an off-Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Anna Christie,” he’s in the initial stages of writing his autobiography.  The book will range from his growing up in Ireland and Manhattan to the sexual abuse he experienced as a boy, his pivotal near-death experience in a horrific car crash that broke his spine in three places, his time in a heavy metal rock group, his acclaimed theater career, and his spiritual healing musical workshops.

We spoke by phone when he was at home in New Jersey between concerts.  Here’s an edited look at our conversation.

Q. “Show Boat” is a nice follow up to “Carousel.” How does it resonate with you.
A. Honestly, “Show Boat,” I believe, was the first musical I ever saw on television.  I remember watching it with my father and him telling me about this great singer named Paul Robeson . . . I’ll start to cry talking about it.  Robeson started to sing “Ol’ Man River” and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I want to be that man!’  (laughing)  It didn’t really work out for me because I’m not black, and I’m not a bass. 

Q. The show has a great score.  You get to sing “Make Believe” and “You Are Love.” What draws you to Ravenal.  He’s a bit of a scoundrel. 
A. I find Ravenal fascinating.  I’ve been talking to [director] Rachel Bertone the last couple weeks about the psychology.  She said, “Why do you think Magnolia is attracted to him instantly.”  And I said, he’s a risk taker, he’s a gambler. Those guys are adrenaline junkies.  They live for that high and they live in the moment. 

Q. Is there an essence about them?
A. Their brains kind of get remapped.  The dopamine release that they get from the win -- the more it happens, the more they need to risk to achieve that high . . . Typically, their testosterone levels are higher . . . I think there’s a pheromone thing that women can [sense] on a subconscious level . . . It’s that whole theme throughout “Show Boat” of “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man Of Mine.”

Q. Even though Ravenal is a bad boy, he’s very charismatic.
A. The more successful [gamblers] are really pleasant guys. They survive because people like them and they don’t mind losing to them . . . There’s no, “I’m gonna shoot that SOB!” . . . [Successful gamblers] are pretty intelligent . . . They’re likable and they’ve got their act together, and most of them don’t drink. They need to be really, really cognizant of what’s going on in the moment.

Q. Despite his love for Magnolia, and later for his daughter Kim, it’s tragic that he’s so absent in their lives.
A. I don’t think he really has a sense of what love means at all until Kim is born. But then he feels like a complete failure and he can’t face that, so he leaves.  That’s why I think it’s so poignant at the end when she takes him back.  The daughter wants the relationship with him but he doesn’t feel like he deserves it.  I find the piece very touching.

Q. That brings to mind the kind of spiritual changes people experience through your workshops. 
A. I was talking to Deepak Chopra and I said, “I’m walking through Penn Station, I saw this old man on the ground . . . You could tell he was kind of in a hopeless state.  I reached my hand in my pocket, I had 20 bucks and I said ‘Here,’ and the light in his eyes -- it made me feel so good.” Deepak said, “You know there’s a bio-chemical change that happens in that person when they receive the gift from a place of love. But the same bio-chemical change happens in the person that gives it if it’s given from that place.  And someone who witnesses it happening, they have the exact same bio-chemical shift, the same physiological shift in their body.”

Q. As you’re working on your book, I know you feel strongly about the power we have within us.
A. Dr. Paul Scheele talks about the power of meditation.  He said we’re actually taking ourselves out of the trance that we’ve been put in, or we allow ourselves to be in, through the wounds that happen throughout our lives and how we start to protect ourselves and guard ourselves.  When we meditate, we actually take ourselves out of the trance that we’re in (and go) to a higher place, to where we’re supposed to be. It shifts us physiologically.

R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of
Reagle Music Theatre’s “Show Boat,” July 6 - 16, Robinson Theater, 617 Lexington Street, Waltham.  Info: 781-891-5600.