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Show Boat.

When the Cotton Blossom paddle wheeler first steams up to the levee in Show Boat at Broadway's Gershwin Theatre, twin water barrels stand on the sidelines. They're what you might find on any Mississippi wharf in 1887: plain old wooden barrels with dipping ladles to drink from. One is labeled "White Only," the other "Colored Only." Over the four decades that the musical covers, a nuclear family gets blown to smithereens, racism destroys one life, and self-sacrifice rescues another. By evening's end, it's 1927. Electric lights blaze. People listen to the radio. And the wooden barrels have been replaced by shiny new water fountains. One is labeled, "White Only," the other "Colored Only."

Harsh social and economic realities are at the center of the production of Show Boat, directed by Harold Prince, which opened in New York this October after being launched a year ago in Toronto. Prince's Show Boat rejects the prettified moss-and-magnolias tradition that has grown up around the show. In fact, designer Eugene Lee's sets are often downright drab, though never less than monumental. This Cotton Blossom is no bright and enchanted thing gliding down a river of dreams, but a utilitarian craft (it looks like a giant matchbox on a raft) engaged in the serious business of selling music and dance, laughs and sighs. Cap'n Andy and his wife, Parthy, are small-time show-biz entrepreneurs, moving from gig to gig and snatching what cheer they can. Prince and Lee have gone deliberately, joltingly old-fashioned: the scenery is moved by the African-American actors who play stevedores. Dragging ropes, black men haul giant sets into place; hefting enormous bales of cotton, they reprise "Ol' Man River," the musical's magiste rial leitmotif, before a vast sepia-hued drop of cotton fields. No one notices their presence; everyone depends on their efforts. The metaphor is the reality. This Show Boat grabs the mind and, at its best, the heart. It's a magnificent production.

That's not the same as a definitive production. Show Boat aims so high (and sometimes stoops so low); is so overstuffed with scenes and songs; is, finally, so damn big that an absolute rendering is probably impossible. Still, the current staging sets contemporary standards not only for seriousness of intent but also for sheer size: a cast of seventy, hundreds of costumes by the endlessly gifted Florence Klotz, and a large orchestra. Magnitude comes at a price. In case you wonder why the best tickets cost $75, producer Garth Drabinsky has stated that. the show must take in $600,000 each week just to break even. (According to Variety, the potential weekly box office at the Gershwin is $814,039.

At its premiere in 1927, Show Boat was immediately acknowledged as a classic, a groundbreaking musical that made bold formal innovations while grappling with provocative subject matter. Composer Jerome Kern and lyricist and book writer Oscar, Hammerstein 11 must have gotten something right that first time out, even if early performances clocked in at around four hours. With each subsequent stage Or film version (Hollywood has tackled this show three times), the creators fiddled with the script, adding and deleting songs and scenes. The whiz-bang exposition in the show's last ten minutes, with its instant forgiveness after decades of abandonment, requires a rather determined suspension of disbelief.

Prince has made renovations of his own, restoring the soulful "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'," which was cut from the 1927 premiere to save time, interpolating a tune written for the 1936 movie, expunging a number at the Chicago World's Fair, and turning the blithely romantic duet "Why Do I Love You?" into a grandmother's lullaby. The result is the Hal Prince Show Boat: brilliant, even overwhelming, perhaps a tad chilly.

Prince is smarter than he is emotional. Moments that should kill you, such as the banishment of a married interracial couple or the discovery of Cap'n Andy's daughter, Magnolia, living in squalor as a single mother, don't. What's missing at such melodramatic flashpoints is the sense that lives are at stake. Prince keeps his emotional distance yet one always senses his keen intelligence, like the throb of an engine through the planks of a ship. Now and then, however, I wouldn't mind twisting in the wind.

Much of the story unfolds through movement. Choreographer Susan Stroman must have done a ton of historical research, but her work looks free and spontaneous. Unlike her zanily prop-laden dances in Crazy for You, there's little gimmickry in Show Boat. Her dances span not only the show's forty-year time frame, but also convey the shift from the rural South to industrial Chicago, from chipper but dignified movement done under long skirts and tight corsets to frantic jazz gestures, all flapping elbows and pumping knees, in skimpy flapper frocks. Early on, during "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," Julie, Magnolia (Rebecca Luker), and Queenie, the cook (Gretha Boston), indulge in exactly the kind of frisky hoofing one might do in the kitchen while the soup is simmering. No uniform kick lines here, but the messy, exuberant dancing we do when we just can't sit still.

This emphasizes the practiced theatrical combinations and vaudeville high jinks of Frank and Ellie (Joel Blum and Dorothy Stanley), the ship's specialty dancing team. Their "Goodbye, My Lady Love" is funny, brittle, swift, and perfect for the period. "Life Upon the Wicked Stage," Ellie's wry reflection on the disappointments of a theatrical career, is conventional. Stanley struggles to sparkle. Blum's utterly idiosyncratic burst of eccentric dance during Magnolia's tense audition is just what's needed. He's a classically quirky song-and-dance man.

Stroman and Prince have added two dazzling montage sequences to carry us across decades. It's Chicago at the turn of the century. Strutting swells, hyperactive kids, a yipping dog, and worn-out laborers careen along the street under the looming elevated railway in a big-city hustle that only accelerates. The revolving door of the tony Palmer House hotel spins like a cyclone, spilling out entire strata of society. Black street buskers sprint through a dynamic Charleston. Suddenly, they're doing that down-and-dirty Charleston to "Ol' Man River." It shouldn't make sense; it makes perfect sense. The buildings disappear and the passersby, and all that remains are those dancing figures, kicking up their heels through a void of time and place.

The next Charleston we see is danced by white people in a polished, impersonal style. Cultural appropriation is one of this show's themes, and we've just witnessed a dance proceed from the street, where it began as a spontaneous expression of high spirits, to being merely the latest dance craze.

The cast is uneven. Mark Jacoby makes a dashing and handsome Ravenal, the riverboat gambler who steals Magnolia's heart, and Luker makes an innocent and ravishing Magnolia. Granted, they are a bit stiff, but not when they power their way through "You Are Love" with the moon at their backs and the wind in their hair.

As Joe, Michel Bell sails through "Ol' Man River" with enough volume to be heard on the Mississippi Delta, but he moves like a somnambulist, a basso trying too hard to be profundo. Rather than the usual bustling busybody, Boston finds new values as Queenie. Nothing escapes this woman. Her feral intensity and operatic range make Queenie's prescience in "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun' " truly chilling.

Lonette McKee is a lovely Julie: sexy, stunning, and exquisitely haggard, a delicate rose about to lose its bloom. When Julie's life takes a dive, however, McKee is not big on subtext. She staggers across the stage, indicating like mad that Julie's now a booze-soaked slattern. You can tell she's a lush because she's holding a bottle and running around in her underwear. But when McKee sits and sings, there are untold worlds in her voice.

Prince has cast John McMartin as a dandy Cap'n Andy and Elaine Stritch as a highly unusual Parthy, and they're wonderful. A fine, serious actor, McMartin grabs Andy like a seasoned comic and milks the part for everything it's worth (and it's worth plenty, judging by the laughs he gets). And his simple goodness in the show's closing minutes is completely disarming. Stritch is another story, simply because she is a performer with such a familiar, if hilarious, shtick. Here, she jettisons the mannerisms. Parthy is the embodiment of tough love; she just doesn't want anyone to know, that's all.

Has America changed much since Show Boat premiered? There's still the dilemma of what to do about that infamous shocker of an opening line, "Niggers all work on the Mississippi." Prince and company have chosen the more familiar "Colored folks work on the Mississippi," which is not what Hammerstein wrote, is historically inaccurate for a show that begins during Reconstruction, but has the virtue of being less offensive. Sixty-seven years after its premiere, Show Boat still provokes. It exposes not only who we were, but what we are.

Is Susan Stroman the busiest choreographer in show business? On October 2 her staging of Show Bat opened on Broadway after a year's run in Toronto. Her staging of Crazy for You continues on Broadway, where it opened early in 1992, and is on an extended national tour; in the summer of 1995, it will be the first American musical ever to play China. On December 1, her staging of A Christmas Carol opens at the Paramount Theatre, the vast auditorium tucked underneath Madison Square Garden.

Based on the classic Dickens's novella, Carol, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, is Madison Square Garden's challenge to Radio City Music Hall's long-running holiday spectacular. Mike Ockrent directs a cast of ninety. The show is a gaudy extravaganza, with nearly all of Victorian London onstage, dancing bonbons, flying ghosts, and graveyard revelry. Says Stroman, "I'm lucky in that Alan and Lynn and Mike adore dancing as much as they do." (Performances run through January 1, 1995.)
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Title Annotation:Gershwin Theatre, New York, New York
Author:Sandla, Robert
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:Dec 1, 1994
Previous Article:Larry Long at Ruth Page Foundation School of Dance.
Next Article:Damage control.

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