NEW YORK — The wooden water barrels are clearly marked--"colored only" and "whites only"--at the start of the massive Harold Prince reconsideration of "Show Boat," which opened Saturday night with a record $75 ticket top at the Gershwin Theater.
Three hours (and 40 years of progress) later, the clothes are freer and the dances are cheekier, and most main characters have grown wiser with their gray hair.
But there's a sign at the boat's box office--"colored only balcony"--to signal what has not changed by the close of this landmark musical of 1927. It seems racism, like the "Ol' Man River" used with such head-banging frequency through the production, also keeps rolling along.
And here we have the hinge that holds this superficially old-fashioned revival together with such moving and unsanitized modern power--and what makes the racial protests against the show in Toronto last year so terribly misguided.
Prince, who has directed only new material until now, takes on America's first serious musical as a haunting study in parallel universes, the separate lives of African Americans and whites together. As the song says (and says, and says), "Colored folks work while the white folks play."
Of course, political context is hardly unexpected from the director of "Sweeney Todd" and "Cabaret." What is surprising, however, is the bold plainness of the production, the resistance to conspicuous gizmos and gadgets from the man who gave the world "Phantom of the Opera."
Prince has done much intelligent interpolating and exhaustive shuffling of Jerome Kern's wonderful songs and Oscar Hammerstein's sprawling book, researching almost a dozen different versions, including the three movies, to strengthen the narrative, telescope the unwieldy second act into two montage fashion shows, and enrich the orchestrations.
The results are less revolutionary, on the surface, than what we might anticipate in this era of mega-shows and flashy revivals. Instead, this "Show Boat" is more of a thoughtful restoration, a solid structural girding, than the sort of exquisite reinvention playing up the block at "Carousel." Along with Eugene Lee, his designer from "Sweeney Todd," Prince has chosen to show us how rough-hewn and unglamorous these "floating theater palaces" really were.
The stage is flanked by huge sepia-and-black scenes of the Mississippi levee, stern but evocative images suggestive of daguerreotypes. The boat is made of raw wood and, except for some rippling water projected on the facade and one starry night for courtship, life on the river, even for whites, is pretty short on magic.
This feels right. The story, after all, has always been fraught with contradictions--the tension between the operetta style and profound emotions, the evolutionary pull between unmotivated musical-comedy entertainment and the great musicals to come. Jovial Cap'n Andy keeps saying what a "big happy family" he has in his theatrical troupe--while bigotry, abandonment and miscegenation tear five couples apart.
Prince makes us feel all this in the contrasting performance styles, the strict rhythmic boundaries in the white operetta and vaudevillian world, the elasticity in the black songs. A highlight is "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun," a stunning dirge of foreshadowing for Queenie (the terrific Gretha Boston).
Queenie, you may recall, is married to Joe, the stevedore and one-man Greek chorus bestowed with the show's most enduring anthem, "Ol' Man River," which Prince uses as the connective tissue of the piece. If Michel Bell were not so sensitive and his bass-baritone so formidable, his spectral omnipresence--amplified to resonate with what seems to be a microphone down his throat--would be more than a little shameless.
Much of the cast is utterly competent, a few are considerably more. Lonette McKee has a husky, earthy beauty as Julie, the performer doomed by her mixed blood, but not before she is elegantly ripe in "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and rips us quietly apart with "Bill."
Rebecca Luker has a graceful intelligence and understated vibrato as Magnolia, the prized daughter who runs off to temporary ruin with the dashing gambler, Gaylord, but not before they sing "Make Believe" and "You Are Love" and introduce the delightful--and surprisingly racy--"I Have the Room Above Her" (from the admired 1936 film).
Mark Jacoby seems a bit mature to star on the boat as the juvenile lead, but he has a dark, focused voice and the persuasively rakish charm of a sympathetic river rat. John McMartin, the serious actor who replaced Robert Morse as Cap'n Andy, is game, but pretty forced, in the physical comedy.
The marvelous and gritty Elaine Stritch is underutilized and stuck in a straitjacket in the Miss Grundy-as-mother character, Parthy.
Dorothy Stanley and Joel Blum aren't especially funny as the second bananas, but she can sing ("Life Upon the Wicked Stage") and he can dance. And what a pleasure to have Prince working with a gifted choreographer for the first time since he had Michael Bennett. Susan Stroman's big, strapping dances actually seem to bubble up from the stage, as cakewalks turn to cancans and white people steal the Charleston from the blacks. Also Florence Klotz's hundreds of lavish costumes artfully reflect the passage of time, at least as effectively as does Prince in his montages.
Prince loads the stage at times with unnecessary crowd business, and we do get worn down by sincerity overload. But he has given us a "Show Boat" that fills us with awe about the masters working on Broadway 16 years before "Oklahoma!" This is more than a curious missing link in the development of the American musical theater. It is a primary source of American life.