Smooth Sailing

Spectacle without substance can leave an audience empty, a lesson that seems lost on many current titans of theater. Think Miss Saigon's signature helicopter or Phantom of the Opera's moving chandelier: Spectacular as they are, spectacular is all they are.

Better is the balance seen in the revival of Show Boat, which, while it has an astonishing rotating set that's as colorful and twisting as a Rubik's Cube, also has substance that's survived the 71 years since the novel on which it was based was written by Edna Ferber. The beauty of the show's music and the range of its emotion are timeless -- something recognized in the five Tonys won by the current Harold Prince production.

Show Boat's first line, sung by black laborers on the docks of Natchez, Mississippi, is "Colored folks work on the Mississippi ...." But if some of the language is offensive today, it reflects the time in which the musical is set. Director Prince has written that he was "determined not to rewrite history" in this production, and he hasn't. There's nothing racist about showing an ugly sliver of this country's past, a time during which marriage between people of different races -- one of Show Boat's key plot points -- was illegal. In fact, the show was revolutionary when it premiered in 1927 because it put white and black actors on stage together, as equals in performance.

The musical spans 40 years, beginning in 1887, when show boats carried performers from port to port to entertain townsfolk. Pat Harrington plays Cap'n Andy, the paterfamilias of one such show boat, the Cotton Blossom. A TV veteran since the 1950s, Harrington is best known as Schneider, the lecherous handyman on the sitcom One Day at a Time.There's not a tool belt in sight here, though, and he proves adept at verbal and literal footwork. As the amiable captain, Harrington commands the stage.

He describes his crew and the cast that puts on the Cotton Blossom's show as "just one big happy family" several times, a signal that this happiness is in jeopardy. Sure enough, his lead actress and singer, Julie, is exposed as half-black, making her marriage to white actor Steve a crime.

Andy's starchy wife Parthy had already worried about the influence of the worldly Julie on their impressionable daughter Magnolia, the show's piano player. But Magnolia's sheltered life is jolted not by Julie, but by her love for handsome gambler Gaylord Ravenal. When Steve and Julie flee to avoid imprisonment, Gaylord and Magnolia take leading roles as lovers in the show boat's melodrama, roles they carry into real life.

Couples dominate Show Boat: Steve and Julie; Gaylord and Magnolia; Andy and Parthy; the show-within-the-show's comic duo Frank and Ellie; and laborer Joe and his wife Queenie. Although all have their virtues, I would have gladly watched Kenneth Nichols and Jo Ann Hawkins White, who play Joe and Queenie, act all the parts and sing all the songs.

Nichols provides the show's high point with a stunning rendition of "Ol' Man River." If it doesn't send shivers up your spine, well, buddy, you're an invertebrate. Subtle accompaniment by the orchestra lets Nichols's voice stand with only minimal background.

As Queenie, White sings the haunting "Mis'ry's Coming Aroun'," as well as a few verses of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." Her marvelous voice complements her skill with spoken dialogue and her infectious laugh, making White's performance a delight.

Keith Buterbaugh brings swagger and charm, as well as a powerful voice with a huge range, to his role as Ravenal. His duets with Gay Willis as Magnolia also score. But Willis has one of those always-in-tune but soaring, screeching sopranos that could etch metal. When a character remarks that Magnolia's mother keeps her under a glass dome, I uncharitably thought, "Why doesn't she just sing her way out?" She's much more appealing in the second act, when she breaks out of her standard ingenue shell.

The first act ends with Gaylord and Magnolia's marriage, as they leave the show boat to seek a gambler's fortune in Chicago. In the second act, Queenie's prediction of disaster comes true for some of the characters. In an interesting touch, several of the first act songs are reprised in quite a different way in the second act. "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" gets a ragtime treatment in a nightclub scene, while "Why Do I Love You?", first sung by Parthy to her granddaughter, becomes a romantic love song sung back to Parthy by Gaylord and Magnolia's daughter Kim.

Show Boat's music and lyrics, by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, propel the show, and they're stunning. But the show's book, also by Hammerstein, is well-written too, if sometimes on the cornball side. When the Cotton Blossom's comedienne Ellie tells her swain, "My mother never wanted me to be an actress," he zings back, "Well, she got her wish."

In one hilarious scene, an armed, excitable audience member at a Cotton Blossom show scatters the cast members, and Cap'n Andy winds up acting out all the melodrama's events. Harrington wows the audience on the Cotton Blossom stage, and the Jones Hall one as well.

With its constantly changing set and special effects, its colorful costumes and its sheer flair, the production is a visual banquet. But a musical must delight the ear even more than the eye, and in that respect, Show Boat could hardly be better.

Show Boat plays through August 3 at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, 629-3700.


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