`Show Boat' Dazzles With Show-Stopping Singing and Dancing

Hal Prince's new staging seems utterly contemporary in its style and concerns

SHOW BOAT Music by Jerome Kern. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Harold Prince. At the Gershwin Theater.

IT is no small irony that the first and one of the most important theatrical events of the fall Broadway season is a revival of the musical that virtually redefined the form: Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's ``Show Boat,'' which is now nearly seven decades old.

``Show Boat'' is hardly a neglected musical. The most recent Broadway revival was a mere 11 years ago, and it was even performed in the same theater - but it's the kind of show that needs to be seen every generation or so, just so audiences will be reminded of its complexity, of its greatness. With all of the revolutions in musical theater in this century, it is amazing that this show seems utterly contemporary in its style and concerns, particularly in the powerful new staging by Hal Prince.

Much has been made of the oversized dimensions of this revival, which began in Toronto. Its elements include a cast of more than 70, huge sets, more costumes than one can possibly imagine, and a precedent-setting new top Broadway ticket price of $75. But the show actually seems quite intimate in this production, due in no small part to Prince's concentration on the humanity of the characters, and on the sociological aspects of the text, particularly the theme of miscegenation. The story is sprawling and at times quite fuzzy, but the relationships come through clearly. Thanks to sensitive performances by Gretha Boston as Queenie, John McMartin as Cap'n Andy, Elaine Stritch as Parthy, Marc Jacoby as Gaylord Ravenal, and Rebecca Luker as Magnolia, this is a ``Show Boat'' populated by characters we care about.

Even more powerful is Lonette McKee as Julie (a role for which she received a Tony nomination in the last revival). McKee, a stunning singer, delivers the woeful ``Bill'' with strong conviction. But for true vocal prowess, no one onstage can match Michel Bell as Joe. When he utters his first words, his voice is so impossibly deep and luxurious that the audience gasps. His rendition of ``Ol' Man River,'' which he gets to reprise not once but twice, will give you goose bumps.

The entire glorious score is sung magnificently, with the huge company giving the ensemble numbers a real operatic heft. Songs like ``Make Believe,'' ``You Are Love,'' ``Why Do I Love You,'' and especially ``Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man,'' have never been better.

Prince has wisely turned this production into a sort of hodgepodge of various ``Show Boat'' incarnations over the years. He has cut some numbers from the original, added songs and scenes from later incarnations, including the 1936 film version, and reassigned some songs to different characters. It would take a theater scholar to notice all the changes, but the result is fully satisfying.

The director's trademark fluidity serves him well in such a broadly scaled production; the show, spanning decades and multiple locations, flows with effortless grace. Susan Stroman's choreography, ranging from the comic gyrations so well performed by the comic lead, Joel Blum (playing Frank), to the spirited Charlestons danced by a legion of flappers, continues to dazzle. Together, Stroman and Prince have designed two dance montages that beautifully delineate the passing of years.

This is a ``Show Boat'' to admire and to treasure, a production staged with loving care and theatrical verve. It should remain docked at the Gershwin Theater for a long time to come.

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