Garth Drabinsky proved me wrong, first by bringing “Show Boat” to Broadway 18 months ago — when the spectacular Harold Prince production premiered in Toronto , I mused in these pages that only an act of charity would bring such an elaborate production of a revival, no matter how good, to New York — and then by sustaining it as a hit through a canny mix of relentless promotion, renegotiated contracts that brought down the running costs somewhat, and, to be sure, sheer determination.
After a year, Drabinsky announced that the show had done what “Kiss of the Spider Woman” had failed to do before it, which is recoup, and for months afterward, this revival of a 70-year-old musical continued to be Broadway’s top grosser. That status has been compromised during a tough winter, and the prospects of a number of new musicals this spring may slow down “Show Boat” further.
Nevertheless, a recent visit to a sold-out Sunday matinee easily reminded me of why this show has been such a success. There is, to be sure, the beautiful, unmatchable Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II score, and the sweeping story that unfolds around them. And there is Prince’s clear-eyed vision of “Show Boat” as an American tale, epic in its 40-year sweep from the Reconstruction-era South to Jazz Age Chicago.
With choreographer Susan Stroman and designer Eugene Lee, Prince has re-created the great American musical not as a monument, but as a kind of rebuttal to the original producer, Florenz Ziegfeld. This “Show Boat” is no prettified river ride. It’s social history and family saga — several family sagas, actually — with the sugar coating stripped off the sentiment, and the show is all the more moving because of it.
Inevitably, there have been some cast replacements; happily, there is also one significant return, and that is Lonette McKee, who continues to play Julie for all she’s worth; “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and, especially, “Bill” are definitively put over. More happy news: John Cullum is easily the best of the Cap’n Andys, less a henpecked clown than Robert Morse and more the active father figure than John McMartin. And if Sarah Pfisterer doesn’t quite match Rebecca Luker’s luminescence as Magnolia — well, nobody would, but Pfisterer has a lovely voice and a winsome demeanor; she’s a delight.
Andre Solomon-Glover has replaced Michel Bell as Joe; what has been lost in soul-rattling bass notes has been gained in both a beautiful baritone and a more compelling dramatic performance. Other notable and welcome newcomers include Beth Leavel as the distaff half of the comic duo of Ellie and Frank (rubber-limbed Joel Blum), and Meg Tolin, irresistible in the remarkable “Kim’s Charleston” at the show’s end.
There are two disappointments in the recasting. Parthy is an impossible role to play, but Elaine Stritch nailed her; Carole Shelley is a consummate comic actress who appears to be completely at sea with the character, relying on comic tics and fussy business as if that will establish this unsympathetic character. Hugh Panaro is a light tenor lacking both the sexual charisma and the darker underpinnings essential to Gaylord Ravenal.
No matter. A magnificent production remains so; it’s the rare show that seems to give more back on each revisiting. Long may it float.