“Only make believe I love you,” sings the riverboat gambler to the beautiful stranger. “And if the things we dream about don’t happen to be so,” he continues, “that’s just an unimportant technicality.” Anyone who loves the theater knows well this unimportant technicality. “Show Boat,” the 1927 dream of American musical theater to come, is so emotionally rich it becomes as real as anything else that might happen in our lives.
“Show Boat” is the granddaddy of every great musical ever written, but it is not a museum piece. As directed by Harold Prince, the touring production that sailed into the Ahmanson Theatre on Sunday is a living, breathing drama, soaked in heart-rending partings and moving reunions, rendered in a magnificent score (music by Jerome Kern, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II), a jewel of the American theater.
Spanning four decades at the turn of the century and many lives, both black and white, “Show Boat” tells a story of America, just as the show itself is part of the American story. In “Show Boat,” Kern and Hammerstein invented an American art form with, to quote a later Hammerstein lyric, a heart as big as all outdoors.
And who best to orchestrate this sumptuous celebration of the birth of the musical than Prince? His “Show Boat” is a valentine to the form to which he’s dedicated his artistic life, just as the original “Show Boat” was a valentine to the performers who came before it, as well as to the importance of storytelling and play-acting in the public and private imagination.
The show opens on a Mississippi dock in the late 1880s, with the blacks working and the whites gathering festively to await the arrival of the floating theater, the Cotton Blossom. The key events unfold rapidly and with extreme precision. The riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Kevin Gray) woos the innocent Magnolia (Teri Hansen), while Magnolia’s best friend Julie (Valarie Pettiford) is revealed to be of mixed racial parentage and married illegally to a white man and must leave the boat. The forces of comedy and tragedy prepare to be manipulated, and the characters go on their inevitable journeys. Watching knowingly is the boatman Joe (Michel Bell), a man who knows about inevitability from watching the eternal life of the river. Few songs capture the ever-flowing nature of life and work with as much bittersweet dignity as “Ol’ Man River,” sung wonderfully here by Bell, who has relaxed and improved since he opened on Broadway in 1994.
Prince’s “Show Boat” features so many perfect scenes and songs that it is impossible to mention them all. When Gay and Magnolia decide to marry and sing “You Are Love” against a black sky with stars, the scene glows with eternal emotion. Susan Stroman’s brilliant act-two dance montage that depicts the years passing in changing fashions--and features a tragic glimpse of our lost Julie--is stunning.
But the scene most deeply embedded in the heart of this “Show Boat” is one that centers on the ship’s captain, a patron saint of theater and, one can only imagine, a stand-in for Prince himself. Cap’n Andy (played with incredible warmth and sweetness by Ned Beatty) watches his actors performing long-ago outmoded acting styles in the lovely gaslight (by Richard Pilbrow). Two hillbillies in the audience take the scene for real and produce long pistols when the villain threatens the ingenue. All the actors flee the stage. Cap’n Andy takes over and performs the rest of the show as if he has always been waiting for this moment--he is the one, after all, with all the parts inside of him.
The cast is very good. Hansen overdoes her character’s girlishness at first, but grows gracefully into the older Magnolia. Gray is a compelling Gay with a sharp tenor and a provocative swagger that melts achingly into defeat. Pettiford is a lovely Julie, giving her songs a contemporary pop lilt that is very appealing. As Cap’n Andy’s wife, Parthy, Cloris Leachman negotiates the turn from terrible sourpuss to a woman redeemed by the love of her granddaughter. As the vaudevillians Frank and Ellie, Keith Savage and Jacquey Maltby are wonderfully piquant--Savage in particular. His lean body and physical inventiveness make him firmly a part of a long, great tradition of antic funny men.
While all of Eugene Lee’s sets are stunning, he does his most evocative work in the show’s Chicago segment, particularly in Trocadera, an old-style Chicago bar with dark wood and gilt chairs; you can almost smell the steaks and whiskey. Florence Klotz’s vast array of costumes is nothing short of awesome.
Perhaps the most moving aspect of this “Show Boat,” first presented by Garth Drabinksy’s Livent Inc. in Toronto, is how it backs up its massive physical production--73 actors, 500 costumes, 30 musicians--with emotion that is not inflated. We’ve become used to massive sets with minimal content (Prince, after all, directed “Phantom of the Opera”). How moving it is to see a story that fills up its physical setting, that brims with emotion. “Show Boat” is sentimental too, yes, but is also imbued with kindness and forgiveness. It’s as if, when the Cotton Blossom pulls into the dock, our history has arrived to remind us what can be.
* “Show Boat,” Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m. through Feb. 23. Also Nov. 25, 8 p.m.; dark Nov. 28. Holiday schedule: Dec. 23, 25-28, 31, 8 p.m.; Dec. 26, 28, 2 p.m.; Dec. 29, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $35-$75 (Dec. 31, $55-$95). Reservations: (213) 628-2772. Running time: 3 hours.
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Kip Wilborn: Steve
Anita Berry: Queenie
Wade Williams: Pete
Cloris Leachman: Parthy
Vince Metcalfe: Windy
Ned Beatty: Cap’n Andy
Jacquey Maltby: Ellie
Keith Savage: Frank
Valarie Pettiford: Julie
Kevin Gray: Gaylord Ravenal
George McDaniel: Vallon
Teri Hansen: Magnolia
Michel Bell: Joe
Tim Howard: Dealer, Jake
George Masswohl: Jeb, Jim
Lorraine Foreman: Landlady, Mother Superior
Tiffany Stoker: Kim
F. Blossom DeWitt: Old Lady (on the Levee)
With: Marlaina Andre, Karen-Angela Bishop, Susan Brady, Kristin Carbone, Sabrina Carten, Marc Cedric, Esther Farrell, Keith Fortner, Luvenia Garner, Russell Garrett, Nathan Lee Graham, Topaz Hasfal, Tom Hildebrand, Melanie Janzen, Austin Jetton, Leavata Johnson, Ed Knuckles, William Clarence Marshall, Joy Matthews, Melony K. Matthews, Ross Neill, Barry Newell, D.J. O’Keefe, Tom Pickett, Rebecca Poff, Jimmy Rivers, Rachel Rockwell, Ron Small, Julie Stobbe, Brandi Ward, Ernest Williams Jr.
A Livent (U.S.) Inc. production. Based on the novel by Edna Ferber. Music by Jerome Kern. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Harold Prince. Choreography by Susan Stroman. Sets Eugene Lee. Costumes Florence Klotz. Lights Richard Pilbrow. Sound Martin Levan. Dance music arranged by David Krane. Musical director Roger Cantrell. Orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett and William David Brohn. Production musical supervisor Jeffrey Huard.