New 'Show Boat' enhances luster of a masterpiece


There's plenty of life left in the granddaddy of the modern American musical.

Nearly a year after its Toronto premiere, director Harold Prince's rethought, reworked version of "Show Boat" sailed triumphantly Sunday into Broadway's Gershwin Theater.

What Prince, director of such musicals as "Company," "Follies," "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman," has accomplished with the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II classic is not just a restoration or a revival but a new look at an old friend.

The original 1927 production, produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, astonished a Broadway accustomed to much more frivolous song-and-dance extravaganzas. Its examination of such adult topics as unhappy marriages, miscegenation and the treatment of blacks paved the way for the more serious musicals that began to flourish in the 1940s.

The bountiful Kern-Hammerstein score overflowed with hits like "Make Believe," "Why Do I Love You?," "Bill," "You Are Love," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and the show's oft-repeated anthem, "Ol' Man River."

Yet much of "Show Boat" remained mired in the stock conventions of the day, something that subsequent revivals and several movie adaptations never really erased.

Prince has drawn on all these different versions, as well as material cut from the musical and up-to-date stage technology, to change that. He has re-created a "Show Boat" that satisfies the demands of modern theatergoers for spectacle, yet lets them revel in its epic story filled with strong characters and one of the most glorious scores ever written for the musical theater.

The tale, based on Edna Ferber's popular novel, takes three hours to span 1887 to 1927, but the time moves with lightning speed.

Prince has said the musical is primarily about family, in this case the family of Cap'n Andy Hawks, owner of the Cotton Blossom, a floating theater traveling the Mississippi.

The musical focuses on the romance and doomed marriage of Hawks' innocent daughter Magnolia and the handsome gambler Gaylord Ravenal. A winsome Rebecca Luker and a debonair Mark Jacoby sing the roles ravishingly. If any moment can define the show's romantic appeal, it is their soaring duet of "You Are Love." You could hear the sighs from the lovestruck audience.

Except for John McMartin's oddly prissy Cap'n Andy, the other leading parts are exceptionally well-cast. The gravelly voiced Elaine Stritch, thanks to Prince's generous enlargement of her role, makes Andy's cantankerous wife Parthy more than a shrew. She's comic relief with a purpose and a heart. Lonette McKee is a tremulous and affecting Julie, the Cotton Blossom's racially mixed leading lady.

Prince has stripped the show of most of its more obvious racial stereotypes, and that decision has strengthened the story's emotional impact. Michel Bell, who plays the black stevedore Joe, brings a majestic and effortless bass voice -- and great dignity -- to "Ol' Man River."

This wonderful production has many striking moments, and Prince makes sure the audience leaves with the final image of family.

At the end, three spotlights catch Gaylord and Magnolia, once young lovers, now grown older and maybe wiser; their effervescent daughter, Kim, and an aged Cap'n Andy and Parthy. Their stories -- along with Prince's masterful direction -- have made "Show Boat" a memorable theatrical journey.

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