Music-theater devotees should journey to Toronto for this resplendent and powerful rethinking of “Show Boat,” Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1927 watershed show, directed by Harold Prince and designed by Eugene Lee. With a cast of 68 and a running time of three hours and 15 minutes, only an act of charity will bring this production to Broadway.
Yet by virtue of its warmth, its humanity and, not least of all, for the power of “Show Boat,” even after nearly seven decades, to raise essential questions about our American nature, this all-star production deserves the widest possible audience.
The protesters who have picketed “Show Boat” since it was announced last spring as the inaugural production of the North York Performing Arts Center may be wildly off the mark in screaming “Genocide!” at theatergoers entering the facility. But they’re not wrong to question the mounting in 1993 of a show whose first sung lines are “Niggers all work on the Mississippi/Niggers all work while the white folks play.” Or a show whose audience faces, for most of the evening, water barrels and theater entrances marked “White Only” and “Colored Only.”
“Show Boat” begins during the Reconstruction and ends in the Roaring ’20s, and the one thing that doesn’t change is those signs. So when the protesters argue that cleaning up the language only makes it possible for white people to view the show comfortably, the point resonates. For the 1946 revival, Hammerstein changed the lyric from “nigger” to “colored folk,” which is used here, though the word “nigger” surfaces several times in the dialogue.
But questioning theater texts and indeed the social role of theater is exactly what Prince has been doing for most of his career, from the 1970s shows that redefined Broadway –“Company,””Follies,””Pacific Overtures,””Sweeney Todd” and “Evita”– right up to last season’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
In Prince’s hands they were imbued with a powerful social vision, while many of his failures went down because they weremore polemical than musical.
Who better, then, to take on “Show Boat,” whose very ambivalence about race makes it as contemporary today as it was 66 years ago?
Prince and choreographer Susan Stroman have given the show a sweep that draws the audience almost effortlessly (despite a somewhat static and long first act) across the years.
Their most dazzling conceit is a montage near the end of the show that uses the changing fashion of dance to move the plot from the fin-de-siecle to the flapper era, and it’s also here that the production pays homage to the striking ways in which black life permeated American culture.
When the Cotton Blossom steams into view, it’s a white clapboard and smoking chimney affair. To outward appearances, there is nothing romantic about Cap’n Andy’s floating theater; whatever magic emanates from this boat comes from the people living inside and working on its little stage.
Prince loves theater about theater, and along with everything else it is, “Show Boat” is the granddaddy of backstage musicals.
The production teems with life, and its main characters are extremely well paired and well-played. Robert Morse plays the henpecked Cap’n Andy, stabbing the air with his hands in frustration or triumph at Elaine Stritch’s hard, hard Parthy; vocally, they are sandpaper against sandpaper.
Rebecca Luker and Mark Jacoby play Magnolia and Gaylord rather like Fanny Brice and Nick Arnstein, and she is much his superior in the singing department. As the comic couple, Dorothy Stanley and Joel Blum are charming and loose-limbed.
Lonette McKee played Julie in the Houston Grand Opera production that ran briefly on Broadway 10 years ago; her voice is every bit as gorgeous now as it was then, and she’s a better actress.
Other revelations are Gretha Boston’s dignified Queenie — for whom Prince restored “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun,’ ” a majestic song cut from the original) and Michel Bell’s Joe, whose “Ol’ Man River” fills the space and then some.
The production is exquisitely lit by Richard Pilbrow, and Florence Klotz’s costumes are knockouts.
A “Show Boat” that faithfully recreated Florenz Ziegfeld’s original production would probably provoke riots today. But Prince and company have mounted a persuasive argument for the show’s humane spirit with minimal sleight-of-hand. “One forgets the clock,” Variety reported in its original review. It was true then, and it’s true today.