I'm old fashioned. I like dark, old theaters. I like crushed velvet upholstery and grand marble columns. I like old female ushers in overdone hairdos and black capes. I especially like old theaters if I'm about to see a classic American musical comedy from the 1920's. So you can imagine my disappointment as I walked into the Gershwin Theater, with its stainless steel escalators and huge glass panels...all the giddy anticipation I had felt about the Broadway revival of Show Boat seemed to fade away. When I took my seat with my family, my fears were reinforced: I was handed a playbill that promised me younger looking skin in eight days and a Chrysler LHS that was simultaneously a luxury car and a sports sedan. Behind me, a cranky twelve year old screamed to her father that her Junior Mints were all gone, and she had to have more if he wanted her to stay. I sadly resolved that there was no escaping it: it was 1995.
Then the lights faded. The curtain became the Mississippi: a powerful but peaceful river that swept me downstream. As the overture began, I travelled with my fellow passengers on the Cotton Blossom, headed towards the levee at Natchez, where black workers prepared for our arrival. For the next three hours, it wasn't 1995. It was 1887, and I was part of the intimacy of the Cotton Blossom. I was part of the Showboat.
I admit that I was wrong about the technology of modern theater. I was worried that a slick multi-million dollar production of Showboat would detract from the innocence of the musical numbers and register the melodrama as coldly impersonal. Harold Prince's direction and Eugene Lee's production design avoided the temptation of extravagant sets and costumes and instead focused on emphasizing the strength of the original book and music. The modern mechanics of the production only enhanced the warmth of the show and helped to blend together the many scene changes. In the first act, a three-storied Cotton Blossom sailed gracefully onto the stage; the facade of the Show Boat was later lowered below the stage to create the visual effect of the boat's upper deck during Ravenal and Magnolia's secret meetings. The Cotton Blossom also rotated to invite the audience inside the showboat's auditorium, where we, along with the backwoodsmen of Natchez, watched the antics of "Cap'n Andy." In Act Two, the revolving door of the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago rotated to indicate the span of nearly five decades. The stylistic use of the rotating door alleviated the strain of cumbersome pauses in the show that led critics of previous productions to label the second act "Slow Boat."
The mechanical interpretation and staging of Show Boat is truly impressive, but it is the casting and the director's vision that makes this production so remarkable. As Prince openly acknowledges in his director's notes, "I was committed to eliminate any inadvertent stereotype in the original material, dialogue which may seem 'Uncle Tom' today. However, I was determined not to re-write history." The production doesn't re- write history, but it does represent history more accurately by portraying the repression and the nobility of the black characters. Prince refuses to reduce the black characters to mere support roles and instead celebrates their importance, as a group and as individuals, in the drama and the music of the play. During scenes involving only white characters, the chorus waits on the wings of the central stage and on the balcony of the showboat to stress the public exclusion of African-Americans from early theater and from turn of the century society. The black members of the cast are increasingly present in the main action of the play as it progresses, but a portion of the chorus remains on the side stages, isolated on the edges of society by racial discrimination. The black characters also serve as stage hands during scene changes, moving boxes and lifting props, to emphasize their role as underpriveledged workers.
I've never been witness to a standing ovation in the middle of a show before, but I've also never seen a more literally captivating delivery of a musical number than Michel Bell's execution of "Ol' Man River." The range and power of Bell's magnificent voice brought the entire audience to their feet at the end of the first scene. Bell and Gretha Boston star as Joe and Queenie, the black husband and wife whose dignity and dedication to the showboat remains constant throughout the production. The most generous tribute to the black cast members was the inclusion of an absolutely beautiful piece of music cut from the original production and from the movie. This piece, called "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'," begins as a solo performed by Boston and escalates into a haunting gospel melody sung by the black chorus. The addition of this number is so successful because it salutes the dignity and the pure talent of the black workers and allows them to shine for a brief moment on the center stage of the showboat.
Rebecca Luker and Hugh Panaro deliver youthful, energetic performances in their respective roles as Magnolia and Ravenal. Luker's operatic voice compliments Panaro's classic strength during their three lovely courtship ballads, "Make Believe," "You Are Love," and "I Have the Room Above Her." Both actors develop their characters musically as well as dramatically. In the second act, after Ravenal has left Magnolia, there is an undertone of lost innocence in the musical numbers. When Luker sings "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" it is painfully beautiful; and Panaro's reprise of "Make Believe" is not about the exciting prospect of love, but about the painful loss of love and youth.
Harold Prince performed a remarkable task in his revival production of Show Boat. The play, first performed on Broadway in 1927, has been labelled by theater history as a ground-breaking work that influenced tremendously the developing genre of musical theater. Despite the show's celebrated history, Prince's direction displayed no self-consciousness about the project. The production was not only stylistically elegant but also honest in maintaining the integrity of the original play. There's no question that the message of this play was far more jarring in 1927 than 1995, but I can't imagine a more successful or a more moving production than what Prince has achieved through his casting, his use of modern theatrics, and his love for genuine musical theater.