Review: Show Boat
By Perry Tannenbaum
A theatrical breakthrough when it first opened in 1927 but so politically incorrect today, is it finally time to declare that Show Boat has sunk? At the current CPCC revival, kicking off Summer Theatre’s 2019 season, Tyler Smith as Joe seems to avoid the 92 years of “Ol’ Man River” revisions, its Oscar Hammerstein lyric migrating from N-word to “darkies” to “colored folk” and beyond, by making the Cotton Blossom’s stevedore sound like he jes’ step off de boat from Jamaica.
Yet we’re still back in 1887 Natchez, Misssissippi, where the local Sheriff, enforcing Jim Crow laws that forbid Julie LaVern from performing because she is one-sixteenth African, probably hasn’t gotten any memos that he should clean up his speech when referring to his oppressed brethren. It’s sad, but Julie can take solace in the fact that she has made her white chum Magnolia’s singing career – and comeback! – possible by vacating her gigs on the Cotton Blossom and later at the Trocadero Nightclub in Chicago.
Julie’s voluntary departure from her Trocadero dressing room enables us to realize how noble she is even if Julie remains blissfully unaware. Insidiously, it also justifies the suffering we burden black folk with – because they’re so much better than us and so much more equipped to bear it.
It gets irritating for me. Each time Julie appears, it’s so she can benevolently disappear! And doesn’t the rugged, hard-bitten Stoicism of Joe’s “Ol’ Man River” make the innate nobility of his people even greater?
Yes, it does.
Watching Show Boat last weekend, I couldn’t help thinking how much more interesting this Jerome Kern musical would be if it were about Julie, Joe, and their respective spouses. Instead the Hammerstein book, based on Edna Ferber’s novel, concentrates on Magnolia Hawks, her outgoing dad Captain Andy, her small-minded mom Parthy, and her dashing man, riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal. Hammerstein’s book doles out crumbs to the people I care about when they should be seeing at least half the loaf.
Ah, but the best of Kern’s score is still heartland wonderful, and director Tom Hollis has assembled an outstanding cast to bring it to life. Set designer Jennifer O’Kelly creates a riverboat with a fair amount of Mark Twain flair, twin staircases joining at the deck and two smokestacks above, and there are impressive drop pieces descending from the fly loft when we arrive at the Trocadero for a genuine scene change. Debbie Scheu’s costume designs have exactly the right frilly-silky-grubby mix to sharply define the racial and class divides.
It’s important that the evening starts off with the big-hearted garrulousness of Tom Ollis as Captain Andy, because other than the salty bitchiness of Paula Baldwin as his wife Parthy, longstanding conflict is in short supply. As the rakish Gaylord, Ashton Guthrie gets the best of the music written for the men who matter here, and he’s singing better than ever before on “Where’s the Mate for Me” and “Make Believe,” adding a touch of old-timey crooning to remind us what this show would have sounded like way back in the Roaring Twenties.
Lindsey Schroeder as Julie and Sarah Henkel as Magnolia share the “Fish gotta swim” resignation of “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” long before their paths cross in Chicago and each gets a song of her own. Schroeder’s farewell is a similarly resigned “Bill” before she cedes the Trocadero stage to Magnolia. You would think that Henkel could simply take it from there, but it’s only 1899, women are decades away from getting the vote, so Daddy needs to drop by in the nick of time – coincidence, huh? – to buoy sweet Magnolia’s confidence in “After the Ball.” Hooray for Captain Andy! He saved the day.
The sexual politics here are fairly dismal, Edna Ferber story or not. Men can abruptly leave both Magnolia and Julie without accounting for themselves, and they can expect a hearty welcome if they have second thoughts. The layabout Joe lays it out best in his “I Still Suits Me” duet with his long-suffering wife Queenie (Brittany Harrington): “I may be lifeless, But with one wife less, My life would be more strifeless, yes sirree, No matter what you say, I still suits me!”
That’s the brutal, sexist side of Joe, and you can bet that Tyler Smith brings plenty of bite to his complacent boasting. Yet Smith, singing every bit as beautifully as Guthrie in his reprises of “Ol’ Man River,” is especially golden at the end of each bridge, when he sings those two dark low notes each time “you land in jail.” Are there two bluer notes in the American songbook?
Paul Robeson, the megastar this role was originally written for, must be looking down kindly from his heavenly sphere, for Smith is the best reason at Halton Theater not to get weary of Show Boat.