• U.S.

THEATER: Just Keeps Rollin’ Along

5 minute read
Michael Walsh

It’s easy to say what’s wrong with Show Boat, the seminal 1927 musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II that steamed onto Broadway this week in an $8.5 million blaze of spectacular stagecraft. Based on Edna Ferber’s novel about a floating theater on the Mississippi River, the show has always been too long and thematically sprawling. The most engaging characters, the light- skinned black Julie and her white husband Steve, virtually disappear before the intermission, while the coincidence-plagued second act rambles episodically from 1889 to 1927. Over the years, some critics have found the treatment of blacks patronizing and often racist. And in a dozen stage and film incarnations since its premiere, the show has been hacked, squeezed, revised, prettified and bowdlerized nearly out of existence.

Now theatergoers at Harold Prince’s wonderfully imaginative new Broadway production can ignore all of the above. Handsomely cast for both musical and dramatic effect, lavishly constructed by set designer Eugene Lee and cogently if somewhat briskly conducted by Jeffrey Huard, this Show Boat is a near perfect staging of the work that had announced to the world the maturity of American musical theater. The alleged racial bias in the plot, which occasioned protests during the tryout of the Toronto production last year, is nowhere to be found here. To see Show Boat is to experience how potent the Broadway ideal can be in the hands of a master like Prince.

It is a common fallacy to assume that musical comedies are simply plays in which, for some unaccountable reason, some of the words are sung instead of spoken. But to judge any serious music-theater work as if it aspired to be Hamlet or Death of a Salesman is wrong. Even in the heyday of Harrigan and Hart and Cohan, it was the music and the production numbers that drove the action. Who today remembers the plot of a single Gershwin show? True, it was Hammerstein who condensed Ferber and gave her characters sharp, affecting lyrics to sing. But it was Kern, in a majestic score that moves fluidly and freely among such disparate idioms as vaudeville (Life Upon the Wicked Stage), the Viennese waltz (You Are Love) and the flat-out operatic (Make Believe), who gave them life. It is the music, not the plot, that will keep Show Boat floating endlessly.

Thus the selection of the musical numbers is crucial. But how to choose? In their attempt to embrace nearly the whole of the novel, Kern and Hammerstein wrote a great deal of material that was later discarded. Trying to piece together an “authentic” version of a show with more variant editions than Boris Godunov, therefore, is nearly impossible. Wisely, this production restores one of the early casualties, the chorus Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’, a plaintive lament that acts as a kind of fate motive throughout the show (it is heard in the orchestra, for example, when the ne’er-do-well gambler Gaylord Ravenal first catches sight of the sweet, ingenuous Magnolia). Another addition is the charmingly coy duet, I Have the Room Above Her, first heard in the 1936 film version and much the best of Kern’s second thoughts.

The most interesting decision concerns Why Do I Love You? Originally written as a duet for Ravenal and Magnolia in a scene that opens the second act, the song is here given instead to the carping old New England biddy Parthy, who croons it to her newborn grandchild. At a single stroke, Parthy is suddenly humanized, and we see in her the tender side that must have attracted her husband, the skipper Cap’n Andy, in the first place. As Parthy, Elaine Stritch is one of the production’s great strengths. She has no voice to speak of at this stage in her career, but she can still put across a song because it comes from her heart and not merely from her lips.

But this version of Show Boat does ring with excellent voices nevertheless: Mark Jacoby’s charming but feckless Ravenal, Rebecca Luker’s steely Magnolia, Gretha Boston’s ebullient Queenie and Lonette McKee’s glorious Julie. (As Joe, Michel Bell sports an impressive basso profundo, but spoils Ol’ Man River with a needlessly mannered performance.) Still, it is a relative nonsinger, John McMartin as Cap’n Andy, who is the surprising hit of the show: his desperate reenactment of the interrupted play-within-a-play, The Parson’s Bride, is a comic highlight that stays in the mind the way Ol’ Man River stays in the ear.

Behind it all, of course, is the estimable Hal Prince. His delineation of character detail remains as telling as ever (contrast Andy’s smooth shuffle with Ravenal’s hesitant walk), and his handling of crowd scenes is impeccable: a nod here, a gesture there, and a chorus is transformed from a mob into a collection of individuals. There are no haughty white folks and nobly suffering darkies aboard Prince’s vessel — just real people who know that sometimes it’s not only make-believe. The beauty of this Show Boat is that it makes believers of all of us.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com