Anyone looking for a big, old-fashioned musical will find plenty to like in “Show Boat,” thanks to Harold Prince’s spectacular staging, Eugene Lee’s great sets and Jerome Kern’s lush score. However, this touring production doesn’t hit its full potential, partly due to the quaintness of the book, but mostly due to uneven casting. When the show debuted in 1927, its serious themes marked a new era for musical theater. (For comparison, look at the plots of stage-to-screen transfers like “Whoopee!” and “The Gay Divorcee” and see if you can resist fast-forwarding through the dialogue scenes.)
Still, the book of “Show Boat,” by lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, has a goofy structure: act one covers several weeks in 1884, while act two spans the following 43 years. Working from Edna Ferber’s novel, Hammerstein follows five couples over the decades: Cap’n Andy and his wife Parthy, who run a theatrical troupe on a riverboat; their innocent daughter Magnolia and her gambler beau; the troupe’s leading lady, Julie, and her hubby; another pair of performers, Frank and Ellie; and Queenie and Joe, two black servants on the boat. The show mixes melodrama, vaudeville, romance and comedy shtick.
At three hours, it’s a reminder that theater used to be a full meal for audiences, and “Show Boat” is a musical hungry-man’s dinner: a little mint julep, some grits, some ham and lots of corn. Aside from the music, which contains several standards and lots of hummable songs, the most interesting aspect of the tuner is the undercurrent of race relations, which helmer Prince subtly underlines.
Although the whites’ lives have changed considerably over the decades covered in the play, an understated sign on the riverboat in 1927 has the same wording as the first act notice 40 years earlier “Balcony: colored only.” And while nobody’s life is easy, the only untroubled relationship in four decades is the bond between Magnolia and Julie, who leaves her job on the Cotton Blossom when it’s discovered she’s half-black and her interracial marriage is illegal.
It’s probably no accident that three of the production’s four best numbers are driven by blacks: “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’,” “Queenie’s Ballyhoo” and the segregated Charleston number in the second act, all showcasing the rousing razzle-dazzle of Susan Stroman’s choreography and pointing out the blacks’ influence on whites. It doesn’t seem likely that Prince similarly planned for the black performers to come off better than their white counterparts, but that’s generally the case here.
Michel Bell stops the show with his “Ol’ Man River.” Aside from the “Anvil Chorus,” there are few pieces of great music that have turned into such giggle-inducing chestnuts, and the fact that it’s reprised about a dozen times runs it even further into the ground. But Bell, who has a deep, rich voice that can rattle your fillings, doesn’t perform the song like the National Anthem; he thinks it out like a soliloquy, and the result is exactly what’s needed.
Similarly, Valarie Pettiford as Julie gets two standards, “Can’t Help” and “Bill,” and makes them her own. Equally good is Anita Berry as Queenie, who creates a warm, subdued and smart character, and erases the “Mammy” aspects of the role.
The numbers of Frank & Ellie, the alleged comic relief of “Show Boat,” should be real highlights, but Jacquey Maltby needs more performance energy, while Keith Savage needs far less. As the gambler who breaks Magnolia’s heart, Kevin Gray needs to get more specific with the difficult role: He offers only some generalized concept of Southern charm and, in the duets, he seems to be listening to his own singing.
In contrast, Teri Hansen finds the right tone as Magnolia. In the stock role of the nagging hausfrau, Cloris Leachman does what she can. Ned Beatty is a big plus as Cap’n Andy, since his actor’s honesty and likability go a long way in making his scenes work.
Performers like Beatty and Berry prove that it’s possible to breathe life into old scenes, but many other actors still haven’t found that magic; on opening night, many of the comedy bits were pushed too hard , and the sappy love scenes just sat there. Still, Prince and production designer Lee are the real stars of the show. There’s always something to look at , thanks to Lee’s sets and the astonishing stagecraft that quickly switches from one scene to another.
There is no definitive text of “Show Boat”: There have been numerous additions and subtractions of scenes and songs due to various productions and three film versions. In this production, which bowed in Toronto in 1993, Prince has jettisoned some great numbers (“Hey, Feller!” “In Dahomey,” “Ah Still Suits Me”) but has restored others, like the haunting “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’,” originally deemed too serious. Martin Levan’s sound design is generally good, but it’s difficult to hear the lyrics in the group numbers. Florence Klotz’s 500 costumes are terrif, as is Richard Pilbrow’s lighting. And while Lee’s sets are amazing, the show often looks cramped on the Ahmanson stage. Which raises, yet again, two unsettling questions. Will L.A. always be a second-string theater town, getting brief runs of touring shows rather than its own productions, and will expensive hoopla always be lavished on revivals rather than new works?