New York — Show Boat. Musical comedy by Jerome Kern (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics), based on the novel by Edna Ferber. Starring Donald O'Connor, Lonette McKee, Ron Raines, Sheryl Woods. Directed by Michael Kahn. Musical direction by John DeMain. Choreography by Dorothy Danner.
The arrival of ''Show Boat'' provides another splendid example of how rewarding it can be to replenish the present by revisiting the past. Whatever the shortcomings of the Broadway season in other respects, its several revivals have been outstanding. There have been the comic delights of ''You Can't Take It With You'' and the dark intensities of ''A View From the Bridge.'' The British have come to town with the Royal Shakespeare Company's dazzling ''All's Well That Ends Well'' (now, alas, threatened with a May 1 closing unless ticket sales improve).
Broadway still awaits, with mingled curiosity and speculation, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in ''Private Lives.'' Ditto the much-delayed, much-overhauled ''My One and Only,'' starring Twiggy and Tommy Tune in the revamped version of the Gershwin brothers' 1927 musical ''Funny Face.''
The American musical theater has already enriched the season with a captivating production of ''On Your Toes'' and a spectacular ''Porgy and Bess.'' Dedication to authenticity and the original creative inspiration has been the hallmark of these enthusiastically received revivals.
The same kind of dedication invests the spirited mounting of ''Show Boat,'' the landmark 1927 musical, at the Uris Theatre. The rich and melting Jerome Kern score (orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett) and the timeless Oscar Hammerstein II lyrics receive a moving and polished performance by an excellent cast. Not surprisingly, the opulent production has been mounted by the Houston Grand Opera Company, whose Tony Award-winning ''Porgy and Bess'' inspired the current revival of the Gershwin masterpiece at Radio City Music Hall.
''Show Boat'' made musical-comedy history. According to Stanley Green (in Encyclopedia of Musical Theatre), it was not only the third-longest-running Broadway musical of the 1920s, it was also ''the most durable and influential, leading the way to the creation of a form of musical play that was distinct from fast-moving musical comedy on one hand and flamboyant operetta on the other.'' Mr. Green observes that the new Kern-Hammerstein offering ''was a distinct breakthrough because of its well-drawn characters and locales, the strength of its story, and the firmness with which the songs were wedded to the panoramic tale.''
Extending from the 1880s to 1927, that tale revolves around the fortunes and misfortunes of Edna Ferber's Mississippi showboat folk: Cap'n Andy Hawkes and his shrewish wife, Parthy Ann; their daughter Magnolia, who rises to Broadway stardom after being deserted by her gambling husband, Gaylord Ravenal; tragically fated Julie, the light-skinned mulatto performer whose marriage to a white man breaks the local anti-miscegenation laws of the time; as well as the lesser but important incidental characters of this rambling, colorful romance.
The Houston Grand Opera production is strongest where it counts most - in the musical department. From the moment conductor Jack Everly begins the restored overture until the final reprise of ''Ol' Man River,'' the flow of gorgeous melody demonstrates anew its captivating emotional power. The once innovative libretto may seem rather contrived and old-fashioned today. But the combination of story and song can still claim its own sturdy integrity.
The songs are among the gems of the American musical theater: ''Only Make Believe,'' ''Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man,' ''You Are Love,'' ''Why Do I Love You, '' and ''Bill'' (with P. G. Wodehouse lyrics) - as well as the show's stirring thematic emblem, ''Ol' Man River.'' As the stevedore Joe, Bruce Hubbard sings it with simplicity, powerful directness, and soaring fervor. Sheryl Woods (Magnolia) and Ron Raines (Ravenal) are personable and vocally appealing romantic leads, while the lustrous Lonette McKee captures Julie's resigned sadness.
The production headlines Donald O'Connor as the irrepressible Cap'n Andy, a role Mr. O'Connor handles with the jaunty panache and nimble footwork of a veteran song-and-dance man. The principals of a numerous cast include Avril Gentles (Parthy Ann), Paige O'Hara (Ellie), Paul Keith (Frank), and Karla Burns (Queenie, whose ''Hey, Feller'' has been restored for this occasion).
If there is a fault with the performance, it is that director Michael Kahn has permitted altogether too much comic overplaying. Perhaps this is where ''Show Boat'' reveals its months of touring. Fortunately, the singing has retained its freshness and the vocal ensemble work is splendid. The production has been designed by Herbert Senn and Helen Pond (scenery), Molly Maginnis (costumes), and Thomas Skelton (lighting). Dorothy Danner choreographed the occasional dances. The amplification by Richard Fitzgerald achieves exceptional fidelity.