Review by Brian Scott Lipton
Has the time come to finally put “Show Boat” into dry dock? There’s no denying there’s great beauty and power in this 1927 adaptation of Edna Ferber’s musical, which spans 40 years in the life of a Mississippi riverboat family, courtesy of the gorgeous Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II score. But not even the sublime playing of the nearly 100-piece New York Philharmonic, under the guidance of Ted Sperling, nor the first-rate singing and acting of Julian Ovenden and Lauren Worsham as Gaylord and Magnolia, could mask the show’s flaws in the Philharmonic’s somewhat dull semi-staged concert at Avery Fisher Hall (through November 6).
First off, there is way too much of everything in this show; there’s a good reason many wags dubbed Harold Prince’s Tony-winning, 3-plus-hour 1994 revival “Slow Boat.” Many of the songs that are rarely, if ever, heard may make completists happy – such as “At the Fair” and “Trocadero Opening Chorus,” but feel like needless filler to the rest of us. (Give me the MGM movie any day!)
And it’s not that easy in 2014 to watch a plot that revolves around the illegality of miscegenation (marriage between blacks and whites), happy, slave-like Negro workers, and a gambler who leaves his loyal wife and young daughter practically penniless, yet is forgiven two decades later in a blink of an eye. Then again, the cutting of many of the show’s book scenes in this version, while helpful in keeping the show down to under 3 hours, makes some of its nuances hard to follow for those audience members unfamiliar with the material.
While some of the Philharmonic’s more recent concert musicals have been brilliantly cast, this “Show Boat” proved to be a bit more of a mixed bag. It would be hard to improve on the handsome Ovenden, whose soaring tenor made the most of “Make Believe” and “You are Love,” and Worsham was perfection, handling not only these songs, but capturing Magnolia’s transition from naïve teen to worldly-wise adult. Vanessa Williams is suitably glamorous and sings angelically as Julie, especially during “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” but she hardly seems tragic in the second act during her rendition of the magnificent “Bill” (although there’s no quibbling about her vocal purity).
Norm Lewis wowed the crowd with a passionate “Ol Man’ River,” even if the classic anthem isn’t a perfect fit for his vocal range, and I adored Na’Tasha Yvette Williams as his sassy wife, Queenie. On the other hand, the antic Christopher Fitzgerald seemed wasted as song-and-dance man Frank Schultz and exhibited little rapport with a surprisingly underwhelming Alli Mauzey as his wife Ellie. Meanwhile, Fred Willard was fun, if a bit too subdued, as Cap’n Andy, while Jane Alexander was super-starchy as his wife, Parthy.
I imagine “Show Boat” will just keep rolling along, with revivals of some sort popping up every decade or two, but I think I’ve taken my last ride on this overlong cruise.