Shaped Up, Shipped Out

Moments after the legendary showboat Cotton Blossom pulls up to its Natchez, Mississippi, berth, skipper-cum-thespian Cap'n Andy declares, "You've never seen a show like this before." But chances are you've seen many shows like this before. Indeed, you may have even performed in a show like this. Show Boat -- which recently pulled into the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, thanks to the touring production of Harold Prince's celebrated 1994 Broadway revival, carrying Disney veteran Dean Jones and film great Cloris Leachman in tow -- is the QE2 of American musicals. The show is what D.W. Griffith's now-musty Intolerance is to modern-day Hollywood or what the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album is to rock 'n' roll.

Out from under Show Boat's Mississippi-spanning proscenium arch emerged not only the full-scale production numbers of The Music Man, the shameless borrowing of African-American culture in Porgy and Bess, and the contemporary bathos of Rent, but also the trappings of every high school musical ever mounted.

But before you get out your tap shoes and head out to Fort Lauderdale, be warned that a fully satisfying evening with what's essentially a museum piece (albeit with wonderful music) requires a nearly Talmudic interest in the genesis of American musical theater. First mounted in 1927 by Florenz Ziegfield and revived repeatedly on stage and celluloid, Show Boat plays like a panorama of modern-stage evolution -- and little else. Not that the show isn't a knockout of sorts. Using Edna Ferber's popular novel about a theatrical troupe traveling up and down the Mississippi, Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern fashioned an American original -- a show that bridged the gap between the syrupy, European-born, end-of-the-century operettas and, say, the moment Curly sang "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'" in Oklahoma!

The plot -- in which young Magnolia, daughter of showboat entrepreneurs Parthy and Cap'n Andy, meets and falls for the handsome gambler Ravenal and the two go on stage together -- is standard musical-theater stuff, a mix of boy-meets-girl and backstage comedy. But with its tragic subplot concerning Julie, a woman of mixed race married to a white man, Show Boat pioneered the marriage of American politics and stage. The 1932 revival featured Paul Robeson in the role of Joe, and the actor instantly baptized the production with his baritone engraving of "Ol' Man River," turning the song into a proto-Civil Rights anthem. History also smiled on Prince's 1994 revival -- originally starring Elaine Strich as Parthy and John McMartin as Cap'n Andy -- which took home five Tony Awards before closing recently, after 27 months on Broadway. With a $10 million price tag, the revival's current touring production is reportedly the largest in history.

In its original version, Show Boat contained tasty scraps and full-size servings of such theatrical conventions as vaudeville routines, marching-band formations, burlesque, melodrama, soft-shoe, jazz scores, and of course the showboat tradition itself. With three generations of one family performing on or around the Cotton Blossom, it also featured the notion of a theatrical dynasty. Prince upped the ante, putting a nearly full-scale show boat and its attendant tug on stage, as well as providing other sleights of hand. The show features two major examples of a cinema-influenced technique called "montage," in which characters move in slow motion across the stage in order to convey significant passages of time.

Prince also revised Hammerstein's book, incorporating dialogue from one of several film versions of Show Boat, and reinserted some songs, including "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'," written for the 1927 premiere but cut before the show opened. Thanks to Susan Stroman's deft choreography and Florence Klotz's sharp costumes, the show's design effortlessly spans several decades. And, perhaps most magically of all, Prince -- with help from design legend Eugene Lee -- found ways to introduce additional film techniques, such as closeups and changing points of view to the seemingly one-perspective-only theater stage. For example, as the first curtain goes up, a tiny model of the Cotton Blossom, lit from within and effervescent, moves across the "background" just moments before the full-scale version of the boat pulls up to the levee downstage.

With these goodies and a score that includes not only "Ol' Man River," but "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," and "You Are Love," it seems impossible for Show Boat to be anything but compelling. But now that the first glow is off the miraculous recovery of this classic, it's disheartening to point out that, as far as delivering emotional power, Show Boat is something of a dud. Its characters continue to be archetypes, stick figures who don't draw much sympathy. The story line is skeletal as well. We don't know enough about lovers Ravenal and Magnolia to decide whether they should stay apart when Ravenal deserts his family, or if they should reunite. And Julie, the biracial character whose fate should be of interest to contemporary audiences, leaves early in Act One, then reappears briefly only to disappear again later in the show. Too bad Prince didn't see fit to revise this role. In the touring production, Karen-Angela Bishop's Julie has more than enough charisma to carry the whole show.

Although Show Boat is faithful to its theatrical precursors, it's all too obvious why such conventions as soft-shoe routines and vaudeville skits went the way of the dinosaur. That's not to say that some moments don't have their charm, particularly the shenanigans of Kerri Clarke and Keith Savage as comics Ellie and Frank, and the antics of Dean Jones as Cap'n Andy, who in one hilarious scene gives a one-man rendition of a three-act melodrama. But, when administered in large doses, these bits of theatrical hokum are neither continually funny nor moving.

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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Robin Dougherty