Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dream Boat

Melinda Cowan (center) croons with Michelle Dyer, Natalie Wisdom, Regina Gatti and Jenny Florkowski in Show Boat. Photo(s) by Paul Lyden.

Few works loom over their respective genres the way Show Boat does. The first "serious" book musical, the sprawling giant took New York by storm in 1927, simultaneously expanding and refining what was possible on the Broadway stage. Its artistic challenge was matched by its political daring, as it dealt directly with the issue of racism on the Mississippi, and in American life in general (its racist characters' off-hand use of the "n-word" shocks even today). As for its score - well, few have bettered Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's masterpiece; it may or may not be the greatest Broadway score ever composed, but it is certainly the loveliest. The melodies easily rival the arias of Puccini and Verdi (though drawn from American sources), and the lyrics - let's just say few arias ever had it so good (the great gap between musical and opera, if you ask me, lies in the superiority of the American musical's lyrics).

Still, Show Boat is a little challenged as well as challenging - the ambitious book, drawn from Edna Ferber's novel, famously loses focus in its second act, as the plot paddles through something like three decades. Harold Prince's 1994 re-staging was a noble attempt at keeping the last half of Boat afloat as a kind of Tolstoyan meditation on the very passage of time; he cut a World's Fair setpiece, and punched up the arrival of the 'second generation' of show folk at the musical's end, rather than the reunion of (most) of the battered characters.

Judging from the North Shore's revival of Prince's production, his strategy was only partly successful - although Show Boat now does have some sense of epic depth as well as length. Its glory, however, still lies in its songs, which the North Shore seems to have realized, since they've assembled their best singing cast in years, and indeed one of the best ever heard in Boston. It's really too bad the arena itself is so weak acoustically, and the voices have to all be amplified - still, much of their beauty comes over nonetheless.

I don't think anyone could improve, for instance, on Philip Boykin's thunderous sounding of "Old Man River" (left), or Terry Burrell's heartbreakingly graceful rendition of "Bill" (below right). And for once the North Shore can boast a true lyric soprano and tenor in Teri Dale Hansen and Ron Bohmer (below), who together made "You Are Love" - one of the show's lesser-known songs - into a shimmering highlight. Indeed, one of the enduring strengths of Show Boat is how beautiful the minor melodies are (Prince even incorporated a haunting number written for the later movie, "Misry's Comin' Aroun'," here piercingly voiced by the sparkling Sharon Wilkins). Of course you knew this cast would shine in "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," but they also tear through "Queenie's Ballyhoo," "Life Upon the Wicked Stage," and many more. I have only one caveat with the musical performance - Prince gave the gorgeous "Why Do I Love You?" to Elaine Stritch, she of the eloquently lyrical croak. I can guess at the funny little poem Stritch may have made of this gem, but at the North Shore, Audrey Neenan - who is a very capable comic actress - simply doesn't have the pipes for it, and doesn't understand (as Stritch may have) how to make that part of the tender joke.

Teri Dale Hansen and Ron Bohmer, a match made in vocal, if not emotional, heaven.

Dramatically, the show is generally done in the North Shore's familiar hearty manner (here best evinced by the charming Gordon Stanley as Cap'n Andy) - which, alas, isn't always enough to distract us from the weaknesses of Hammerstein's book, which reduces all conflict to noble submission (particularly by the show's women). Meanwhile the Tony-winning choreography, by Susan Stroman, is slightly more subdued than we generally expect from the North Shore (and doesn't really exploit the arena stage's possibilities) but still includes some energetic stomps and and an electrifying Charleston near the finish. The set, by Evan Bartoletti, includes a serviceable evocation of the traveling Cotton Blossom, but is generally upstaged by Forence Klotz's sumptuous costumes (which neatly trace the passage of time through passing fashion). The most glaring gap remains the way the show simply drops Julie, the "mulatto" angel who twice saves darling, whiter-than-white Magnolia from ruin; if memory serves, Hollywood dragged Ava Gardner (!) back for a smiling-through-tears final scene - not a bad idea, actually. Still, given it was such a trailblazer, Show Boat remains remarkably successful in formal terms - and boasts a score that you will not only leave humming, but will also find impossible to forget.

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