It's back, it's opulent, it's surely a hit!
One of America's best-loved musicals, Jerome Kern's "Show Boat," returned to home berth on Broadway at the Gershwin Theater last night, lush and stately as an exquisitely refitted cruise ship, with every modern amenity for today's theatrical tourist.
When the show was new, in 1927, Broadway had seen nothing quite like it. And in a sense Broadway still hasn't. Not quite, for "Show Boat," with its mixture of Viennese operetta and Tin Pan Alley, remains musically unique.
The score comes across as great and sweeping as ever, while Harold Prince's modern, high-tech staging treats the musical precisely like the opera it very nearly is. As would Gershin's later "Porgy and Bess," "Show Boat" revealed the dramatic range and emotional power of the Broadway musical.
The sprawling story of "Show Boat," adapted by the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II from Edna Ferber's 1926 soggy romance novel of the same name, spans 40 years - 1887 to 1927.
An American family saga about the vagaries of life, loyalty and love, it is set against the backdrop of that implacable "Ol' Man River," (the Mississippi), which just keeps rollin' along.
"Show Boat," during its 67 years of always lively life, has been refurbished many times - and no version could be called totally authentic. But this new reading, which started in Toronto last year with virtually the same cast, is by far the most effective I have ever encountered on stage or screen.
It's sentimental - so is Puccini's "La Boheme" - but the human situations and feelings it deals with are bluntly honest.
Moreover, Prince, in this recension, manages wonderfully to stress not just the characters but also their historic reality. He seems to envision real people wandering through Hammerstein's time warped mural of a racist, aggressive America.
He is resourcefully helped by Florence Klotz's gorgeous costumes, and the magnificent production design of Eugene Lee, which uses some wild cross between a mezzotint engraving and an oleograph print to create a whole world as pretty as a picture, as serious as a painting.
So far, so good. Better than good. If you want a musical to touch your heart, its only current competitors are the revival of "Carousel" and Stephen Sondheim's "Passion."
When I saw this production in Toronto, presenting what turned out to be a minority view, I called it "a painstaking, even pious, revival" and suggested that "too much hype was chasing too little novelty."
Well, the revival is certainly as painstaking as it was in Canada, with its meticulous feel for authenticity, both musicological and social. Yet it still misses that blithe spontaneity and lightness of touch that characterize Lincoln Center's "Carousel" and which you surely need in an operetta or musical.
And they hype seems even hyper than ever. This is not the Second Coming - just a new look at an old musical.
And my general reservations about the casting remain much as they were. Everyone is OK - but no one, apart from the sonorous-voiced, impressively presenced Michael Bell as "Ol' Man River" Joe - seems much more.
Among the nominal stars, the one replacement, a dithering John McMartin as Cap'n Andy is, I suppose, an improvement over the wavering Robert Morse. Elaine Stritch remains neatly Stritchy as his wife, Parthy (she even gets to sing "Why Do I Love You?"), while Lonette McKee shows a marked return to form as the tragic Julie.
But Rebecca Luker and a somewhat pallid Mark Jacoby are only so-so as the juvenile leads (one has to "Make Believe" just a little too much). And although Joel Blum (a fine eccentric dancer who gives Susan Stroman's inventive choreography full value) and Dorothy Stanley are the engaging comedy interest, elsewhere both interest and comedy lag.
So, is "Show Boat" worth its $75 top ticket price? Absolutely - it's not only the biggest show in town, but you can nowadays pay $47.50 for a one-man show, so think of what you're getting for your extra $27.50!
For despite the flaws, "Show Boat" offers a magical evening - with music by Kern accompanying a Saturday Evening Post picture-book vision of America.
In the popular consciousness, 'Show Boat' is the great American musical about the tumultuousness of love, played out against the majestic Mississippi River and the big-shouldered city of Chicago.
Its characters -- Gaylord Ravenal, the rakish riverboat gambler in the top hat; Magnolia, the sweet innocent he marries, then deserts, and even Julie, the mulatto whose life spirals into the gutter after she is barred from the show boat -- have long passed for the most romantic of figures.
With the exception of 'Ol' Man River,' the most enduring songs in the score by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein 2d are those that explore love's first stirrings ('Make Believe'), love's tyranny ('Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man'), love's exquisite bliss ('You Are Love') and, of course, love gone wrong ('Bill').
So it may come as a jolt that Harold Prince's gloriously bold re-examination of the indestructible classic, which opened last night at the Gershwin Theater, is about something else: time and its inexorable ravages. No sooner has the Cotton Blossom docked at Natchez and a curious crowd gathered on the levee than Cap'n Andy (John McMartin) is introducing the members of his floating troupe as 'one big happy family.' Twenty scenes and three hours later, the full cast is back on that same levee, dancing a frenetic Charleston that seems to embody all the explosive forces that by then have torn the happy family asunder. Anyone looking for pure escapism had better look elsewhere; this 'Show Boat' rides a river of deep disillusionment.
The cast members are never less than personable, and the starchy Elaine Stritch is, for all her gruff manner, positively endearing as Cap'n Andy's wife, Parthy. But if the singing is magnificent on nearly every front, it is the crushed-blue-velvet alto of Lonette McKee (Julie) and the volcanic bass of Michel Bell (Joe) that best express the production's brooding concerns.
A king-size budget and a cast of more than 70 have allowed Mr. Prince, still the undisputed master of the Broadway musical, to put together a sweeping panorama that embraces four decades (1887-1927) of American history, fashion and mores. His acute social conscience has prompted him, whenever and wherever possible, to emphasize the racial rift that runs the length of the musical like a fault line in an earthquake zone. But his abiding sense of life's capricious ironies is what really darkens the glittering stage pictures.
In such varied musicals as 'Cabaret,' 'Follies,' 'Grind' and even 'Kiss of the Spider Woman,' show business has served as the distorting lens through which Mr. Prince views the world at large. It was probably preordained that he would eventually turn to 'Show Boat,' which was first wrested from Edna Ferber's sprawling novel in 1927. Since then, like no other American musical of its stature, the work has undergone substantial changes with each successive incarnation. (Hollywood, not to be outdone, has had its way with the piece on three occasions.). Borrowing from here and there, Mr. Prince has built the current version pretty much from the ground up.
From the 1936 film version, for example, he has taken 'Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun',' the dour song of presentiment that Queenie (Gretha Boston) voices early in the first act. Scotching the usual second-act opening -- Gaylord and Magnolia drinking in the marvels of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago as they sing 'Why Do I Love You?' -- he replaces it with a scene in which Magnolia gives birth to a daughter, Kim. He then hands the number over to Ms. Stritch, who barks it out with captivating tenderness to the newborn child. And instead of accentuating the reconciliation of Gaylord and Magnolia at the show's end, as does the rapturous 1951 film, Mr. Prince puts the focus instead on Kim (Tammy Amerson), a rising Broadway star by this point, and her madcap dancing friends.
The choppy second act has never been a miracle of plotting. But Mr. Prince and Susan Stroman, his gifted choreographer, fill in a lot of the blanks with two pantomimed montages. The first traces Gaylord and Magnolia's ruinous days together in Chicago. The second, a dazzling 21-year flash forward in the life and customs of the country, is a virtual March of Time newsreel, sumptuously costumed by Florence Klotz. Through it wanders Joe, a far more benign presence than the emcee in 'Cabaret,' perhaps, but like him, a disconcerting herald of upheavals to come.
The very fluidity of Mr. Prince's staging lends an inevitability to events that don't possess it on their own. By making 'Show Boat' less episodic, he invariably makes it a sadder, wiser musical. Three generations of friends and family gather on the Cotton Blossom for the finale, but given the pain they have caused one another over the years and the losses they have suffered, only a committed optimist would consider it a happy reunion. In this production, in fact, the last word belongs to a slightly crazed old lady (Sheila Smith), who still remembers Gaylord and Magnolia's wedding celebration on that very spot and blindly congratulates them on how well the marriage turned out.
Indispensable to Mr. Prince's fatalistic vision is the work of the scenic designer, Eugene Lee, and the lighting designer, Richard Pilbrow. The sets are not just the stuff of the wide screen; they supplant one another cinematically, so that the dramatic action is rarely impeded. Take Mr. Bell's potent rendition of 'Ol' Man River,' which starts out on the sleepy levee. By the time the chorus joins in, he's standing before a backdrop of cotton fields at harvest time. Then, once the song is over, the field hands rebelliously rip down the backdrop to reveal the kitchen pantry of the Cotton Blossom detaching itself from the show boat and gliding downstage for the next scene. Many of the set changes are effected by the black members of the large chorus, tugging on ropes or putting their shoulders to massive pieces of scenery -- a continuing reminder of who is saddled with the dirty work in this society. At the height of New Year's Eve merriment in the second act, several white couples waltz giddily behind a curtain of multicolored streamers. Suddenly, the streamers flutter to the ground and a crew of black sanitation workers materializes to sweep up what is now refuse. In the wink of a drunken eye, an image of privileged abandon has been replaced by one of morning-after servitude.
Mr. Prince also knows when to do nothing at all. Gaylord and Magnolia (Mark Jacoby and Rebecca Luker) sing the exultant 'You Are Love' on the top deck of the Cotton Blossom, with only the full moon and a dusting of stars as their witnesses. While the two performers can't always conceal the cardboard nature of their characters, locked in a tight embrace in the inky night they are the essence of full-bodied passion. (The moment may be reminiscent of 'The Phantom of the Opera,' but a director is permitted to borrow from himself.)
Likewise, Ms. McKee is at her most bewitching in stillness. Slumped beside an upright piano in the Trocadero nightclub, clutching a silk wrapper about her wasted frame, she pours both her languor and her pain into 'Bill.' The cleaning staff can't help stopping to watch. Ms. McKee, who played the role in the 1983 Houston Grand Opera production, has since acquired something she didn't have back then: the luster of a genuine star.
It is mainly in its lighter, comic aspects that this production is least successful. 'Show Boat' paved the way for the serious Broadway musical, but it still pays allegiance to the old-fashioned high jinks of vaudeville and early musical comedy. When rowdy customers disrupt the melodrama on the Cotton Blossom's stage, Cap'n Andy is obliged to assume all the parts and act out the ending. Mr. McMartin, whose blond wig and flutey voice suggest a distressing kinship with the nightclub comic Rip Taylor, isn't up to the shtick. Joel Blum dances with acrobatic eccentricity, but otherwise the effervescence he and Dorothy Stanley bring to the roles of the secondary lovers, Frank and Ellie, is the most conventional kind. Mr. Prince may even find the characters a little foolish.
After all, in what amounts to a major reappraisal of the work, the fabled glamour of the show boat is merely a trick of makeup and footlights. Life on and off the wicked stage is hard. And time and the river keep rolling along.
After a year in Toronto, where it is still going strong, Harold Prince's enormously affecting production of "Show Boat" arrives in New York fit (nearly perfectly at the vast Gershwin) and trim (by about 20 minutes). Broadway may be awash in revivals, but this bold production has the conviction of the new. With an artistry rarely equaled and a totally modern sensitivity to the range of issues Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II introduced in 1927, "Show Boat" here truly seems as timeless as the Hammerstein musical it hauntingly predicts --"Carousel"-- even as it renders a period with stark specificity.
That both shows are now running within 15 blocks of each other -- in landmark productions that have little more in common than an ability to startle us with their freshly discovered beauty -- may disturb those in search of new work, but it offers most theatergoers an uplifting, eye-opening, ear-pleasing time.
And "Show Boat" represents the biggest gamble yet for producer Garth Drabinsky: a sprawling yet ultimately intimate production, deploying a company of 68 in the service of a show introduced nearly seven decades ago. Whether all this effort will ultimately pay off at the box office is doubtful, given the odds -- but it won't be for lack of first-class trying.
Faced with a sweeping tale that begins during Reconstruction and ends in the Roaring '20s, Prince tackles head-on the racial issues that have prompted criticism of the show nearly from its inception; this is, after all, a musical whose first sung lines are "Niggers all work on the Mississippi/Niggers all work while the white folks play," and whose original Queenie was played by Tess Gardella, a strapping white vaudeville actress famed for playing mammies in blackface under the stage name Aunt Jemima.
Hammerstein eventually changed the lyric to "colored folk," which Prince retains. But he purposefully keeps the word "nigger" in the dialogue, and he and set designer Eugene Lee offer up a riverfront scene replete with "White Only" and "Colored Only" signs everywhere. Tellingly, those signs are just about the only things that remain unchanged over the show's 40-year span.
Indeed, rather than mute the show's racial and class distinctions, Prince and Lee have set them in high relief without ever undermining one of the most beautiful scores ever written.
Equally inspired is Prince's pairing with choreographer Susan Stroman, with whom he's given the show a cinematic sweep that draws the audience almost effortlessly across the years. Their most dazzling interpolation is a montage near the end of the second act that uses the changing fashions of popular dance to move the action from fin de siecle Chicago to the flapper era, and it's also here that the production pays homage to the striking ways black life and art permeated American culture.
"Show Boat" has a raw, anti-technological look to it: The Cotton Blossom is no romantic Ziegfeldian vision, but a white-clapboard-and-smoking-chimney affair. After a somewhat static and distant first act, the show comes teemingly to life in the Chicago sections, and ends with dancing fireworks back on the levee.
What Prince hasn't done, and which no one is likely ever to do, is address the show's deeper flaws: For all the talk of Kern and Hammerstein's fearlessness in dealing with miscegenation, the half-white, half-black Julie (Lonette McKee, reprising the role that made her a star in the 1983 production) is really never more than a plot device, disappearing early in the first act after providing the impetus for Magnolia (Rebecca Luker) to go onstage, only to reappear ever so briefly in the second, and for the same reason -- to provide Magnolia's next opportunity.
Despite some heavy-handed miking in the early scenes, the show has been beautifully transposed to the Gershwin, an unwieldy and typically off-putting space. William David Brohn's revisions of the original Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations are exquisite, and the show is generally tighter than in Toronto.
A wonderful cast offers up one sung treasure after another, including "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'," cut from the original, for Gretha Boston's dignified Queenie, and, of course, "Ol' Man River," sung by Michel Bell, who can't act but makes that fact seem insignificant. Elaine Stritch gets "Why Do I Love You," a song not meant for the hard, tough Parthy, but given his star by Prince, and a sweet gift it is. Luker possesses one of the most beautiful voices anywhere in the theater today; she's lovely as Magnolia and nicely matched with Mark Jacoby's Ravenal, though the sparks don't fly. McKee grows steadily in a thankless role, though I remember her delivery of "Bill" as having been much more mournful than it is here. As the comic secondaries, Dorothy Stanley and Joel Blum are winningly limber and silly. And as Magnolia and Gay's grown daughter Kim, firecracker Tammy Amerson is onstage for only a few minutes, but she nearly steals the show in a giddy Charleston number at the show's end.
That leaves the major cast replacement, John McMartin, who came in as Cap'n Andy while Robert Morse continues in Toronto. Suffice it to say that McMartin misses and Morse is missed as the henpecked master of the Cotton Blossom revels.
Florence Klotz's costumes -- millions of them, it seems -- are perfect, as is the ever-changing atmosphere suggested by Richard Pilbrow's beautiful lighting scheme.
In the end, as I wrote last November, Prince and company have mounted a persuasive argument for the show's humane spirit and soaring score. "One forgets the clock," Variety reported in its original review. It was true then, and it's true today.