Shaped Up, Shipped Out

Most troubling, however, is the political shortsightedness in this revival of Show Boat. The Ferber book was openly racist, but the play isn't. But, while an interracial cast was revolutionary in 1927 when the show was first produced, a revival that has merely token black roles is offensive in 1998. In the performance I saw, baritone Michel Bell had the thankless job of playing the role created by Paul Robeson. (Kenneth Nichols has since replaced Bell and faces the same challenge.) The first time I heard the singer's rendition of "Ol' Man River," it was impossible not to think of Robeson, even though Bell is blessed with a formidable voice. But the revival doesn't use the character or its singer's vocal talents well. Where Robeson sang "Ol' Man River" once, Prince uses the song as a musical motif, having the character gratuitously reappear as a kind of one-man Greek chorus.

By the third or fourth time Joe opens his mouth, the role and the song are not just tiresome, they've veered dangerously close to racial stereotype -- that of the Noble Black Man singing about his troubles. Couple this irony with the fact that Prince, who took liberties with dialogue and emphasizes other areas of the show, keeps the black characters literally in the background, and the racial imbalance is downright disturbing. Perhaps a sophisticated marriage of Broadway and politics is too much to ask. After all, Broadway is where Kiss of the Spider Woman provided singing, dancing torture victims.

This touring production of Show Boat, however, could use more happily paired actors, particularly in the union of Cap'n Andy and Parthy. Jones is a proficient Cap'n Andy, but Cloris Leachman, a formidable actress when not in musical theater, has stepped into a role -- and a show -- that swallows her up. Her rendition of "Why Do I Love You" is sweet, but she doesn't have a Broadway voice, and, for much of the show, she's an afterthought. (Leachman, by the way, is on short hiatus due to a family emergency. She returns April 12.)

Other roles are more successfully portrayed. Romantic leads Keith Buterbaugh (Ravenal) and Gay Willis (Magnolia) are well matched in chemistry and voice. As Joe's wife, Queenie, Jo Ann Hawkins White is magnificent; in a perfect world, she'd have more ballads than her one exquisite go at "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'." And Bishop's rendition of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" early in Act One is not just soulful and kick-ass, it's the high point of the entire production. If only every minute of this fossil had the power to win -- and break -- hearts.

Show Boat.
Music by Jerome Kern; book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Harold Prince. Starring Cloris Leachman, Dean Jones, Gay Willis, and Keith Buterbaugh. Through May 17 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW 5th Ave, Fort Lauderdale, 954-462-0222.

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