Show Boat, the landmark American musical, follows the lives of performers and workers on and around The Cotton Blossom, a show boat on the Mississippi River, over a period of 40 years from 1887-1927. Magnolia (Lauren Worsham) the daughter of show boat owners Cap’n Andy (Fred Willard) and Parthy Ann Hawks (Jane Alexander) dreams of a life on stage. This dream is realized when she gets the chance to star opposite a handsome stranger, Gaylord Ravenal (Julian Ovenden), whom she eventually marries. Performers Steve (Edward Watts) and Julie (Vanessa Williams) are forced to leave The Cotton Blossom because of their interracial marriage. Queenie (NaTasha Yvette Williams) and Joe (Norm Lewis) spend their lives working on the boat in perpetuity.

Norm Lewis (Joe) © Chris Lee
Norm Lewis (Joe)
© Chris Lee

The importance of Show Boat in the history of musical theatre cannot be understated. This work pioneered the concept of a “book musical” fusing elements of plot, song, and dance into a singular storytelling vehicle, and it paved the way for future artists to build the musical as we know it. The show was also the first of its kind to tackle serious issues like racial prejudice, employing Broadway’s first racially mixed cast to do so. The score uses plot-specific elements to break away from the styles of vaudeville, follies and light operetta that dominated the scene in 1927 when the show premiered. 

Since a definitive version of the score does not exist, Ted Sperling did some excellent creative patchwork, assembling a unified concert with songs from an amalgamation of sources including the original 1927 production, revivals, and film versions. “After the Ball” and “Goodbye, my Lady Love,” tunes not penned by Kern and Hammerstein for Show Boat, were also included in the show.

The concert used simple staging and minimal props including chairs, a table, and an upright piano to bring the story to life. A backdrop of The Cotton Blossom riverboat would display necessary scene information. The actors performed on the lip of the stage in front the orchestra. The cast was a talented (but unbalanced) mix of Broadway favorites, TV and film actors, and fine singers. Norm Lewis delivered an incredible performance as Joe, the lovably lazy boat worker who sings the show’s most iconic song, “Ol’ Man River” which he performed with grounded ease and signature richness. NaTasha Yvette Williams, who played Joe’s wife Queenie, brought wonderful spunk and life to the role, injecting the evening with a healthy dose of charisma.

© Chris Lee
© Chris Lee

Simply put, Julian Ovenden is enough to make you melt. He has that pure, velvety voice that is heard too rarely in today’s musicals. His performances of “Where’s the Mate for Me?” and “Make Believe” were absolutely captivating in their genuine, old-fashioned sound. He brought out the beautiful architecture of the songs simply by letting them sail without getting in the way.

His leading lady, Lauren Worsham, brought a lovely musicality to the role of Magnolia, whose character arguably changes more than any other in the 40-year span of the show. In Magnolia’s adolescence, Worsham’s voice was innocent and child-like, and as the character grew, so did the voice, blossoming into a warm, mature voice with bell-like clarity.

As much as I love the work of Fred Willard, he seemed out of place in this musical. His characterizations seemed so modern that he popped out of the texture of the show, leaving him stuck out like a sore thumb. The same could be said for Jane Alexander who couldn’t quite sing her few bars of music. Vanessa Williams was predictably fantastic, bringing a certain magnetism with her every time she is onstage. Her interpretation of Julie was classy and alluring. “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill” were highlights of the show.

Lauren Worsham and Julian Ovenden © Chris Lee
Lauren Worsham and Julian Ovenden
© Chris Lee

Christopher Fitzgerald and Alli Mauzey, who play Frank and Ellie, complete the show by bringing musical comedy to the table. Full of pep and verve, the two provide a toe-tapping respite from the show’s occasional heaviness.  Their cute dances, including a head-slapping tambourine routine (choreographed by Randy Skinner), provided some much-needed physicality in a mostly static concert.

Robert Russell Bennett’s original 1927 orchestrations were used for this concert, brought to life with spirited fullness by the New York Philharmonic. The tuba and banjo have been restored to the orchestration (thank you, Mr. Sperling), and their presence makes a world of difference, instantly transporting you to the old-timey world of the show.

Though musically satisfying, the concert could have benefited from having more stage direction. At times, stage business, such as laboriously setting up chairs, would stunt the flow of the performance. At other times, the lack of activity would seem dull. Yes, there is a clear distinction between a concert and a full production. But, when the performers are singing from memory, unbound from music stands or binders, more thoughtfully assigned action is certainly welcome. 

As an evening, Show Boat was extremely enjoyable, even with its imperfections. The star-studded cast delivered a walloping concert, and the audience left the theatre (actually) humming. Ted Sperling and the New York Philharmonic have made a beautiful recreation of this American treasure, bringing Show Boat, in all of its dated glory, back into the spotlight.

***11