It has taken Rodgers ("On Your Toes"), Gershwin ("Porgy and Bess," with more Gershwin to come), and now Kern, whose "Show Boat" returned last night at the Uris, to rescue a waning Broadway musical season. Can Porter be far behind?
This is a full-scale, lavishly mounted "Show Boat," probably more faithful to the original 1927 production than any of its many reincarnations on stage and screen. (The only sizable omission is the amusing "In Dahomey" fair number.) Recreated by the Houston Grand Opera, which brought us the uncut and gleaming 1976 revival of "Porgy and Bess," it boasts many fine, trained voices (though the amplification essential in this ungrateful auditorium makes it difficult to assess their true value), a full orchestra playing the original Robert Russell Bennett arrangements right down to the overture opening with the haunting "Misery" music, scads of gorgeous costumes, and an assortment of flats and painted backdrops in keeping with an earlier Broadway.
With Donald O'Connor as a sprightly and engaging, if not the familiarly hearty, Cap'n Andy (he even manages to work in a brief bit of fancy footwork), and the other principals of a mostly superior order, this "Show Boat" sails delightfully along for close on to three hours.
It is, as everyone knows by now, a landmark work in the history of the American musical, an inspired advance in the form not further enlarged upon (if we discount Kern's "Continental" scores for "The Cat and the Fiddle" and "Music in the Air") until its librettist, Oscar Hammerstein, teamed up with Richard Rodgers many years later to further integrate the genre with dance, an element given only perfunctory, though enjoyable, treatment in "Show Boat."
The fond, foolish, shamelessly sentimental, but irresistible book, which threatens to come apart at the seams in the second and weaker half, is held together - indeed, sublimated - by Kern's brilliant, springtime-fresh score with its shrewd use of motifs under scenes (Bennett's hand is splendidly employed here), particularly in the first act. And it is that act, culminating with the soaring "You Are Love" duet, that contains most of the great songs, including "Make Believe," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," and "Ol' Man River," a "show tune" of a magnificence unparalleled in Broadway musical theater.
Sheryl Woods and Ron Raines are a handsome and rich-voiced couple as the lovers, Andy's and Parthy Ann's daughter, Magnolia, and the dashing riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal. Their "Make Believe" and "You Are Love" duets are as enchanting as we have every right to expect. Oddly, their "Why Do I Love You," line of the second act's two fine songs, is done with little feeling. This brings us to "Bill," the other big, second-act song. It is sung, of course, by Julie, the mulatto who has, until exposed, been passing as a white performer on the showboat. Lonette McKee, said to be the first black assigned this role in a major revival, is a beautiful Julie and impressive in the first act, using her contralto to excellent advantage in "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." But strangely, her "Bill," delivered, according to the custom established by Helen Morgan, while perched atop a rehearsal upright, misses the mark; it is sung accurately, but expressionlessly.
Baritone Bruce Hubard, as Joe, the black longshoreman, delivers "Ol' Man River" beautifully, both with and without a first-rate black male chorus in support, though this is a song requiring a bass-baritone for full effect. A rotund Karla Burns stops the show repeatedly as Joe's zestful better half, Queenie. Paul Keith, calling to mind a tall Ben Blue, is a most entertaining Frank, half of the show's comedy team, and Paige O'Hara is cute and effervescent as his soubrette partner, Ellie. A rangy, bony Avril Gentles, possessor of a formidably harsh voice, is a commanding Parthy Ann.
All of the lesser roles are set forth ably under Michael Kahn's effortless, nicely-contained direction. Dorothy Danner's choreography is routine, but in keeping, and especially so in the cakewalk strutting to "Queenie's Ballyhoo." Rarely heard since the original production, by the way, is Queenie's up-tempo "Hey, Feller" just before the finale in which Ravenal, who had left Magnolia and their infant daughter 15 years before, only to turn up unexpectedly in 1927 for a happy reunion of sorts, embraces Magnolia while the entire cast is lined up before Andy's splashy new showboat.
The scenery, allowing for the customary "in one" numbers during major scene changes, has been brightly and fittingly designed by the team of Herbert Senn and Helen Pond, and the outstanding costumes were run up by Holly Maginnis. Thomas Skelton has lighted the show faultlessly.
With all its corn and plot contrivances, "Show Boat" is a buoyant slice of Americana and, thanks to Kern's transcendent score, evergreen.
What can I say about this Show Boat which opened last night at the Uris Theater? I think I am going to have to go along with "incredible," although in a way, "unexpected," a slight difference of nuance, might well be the first word to come to mind.
Show Boat is such a fantastic musical. Don't let's talk about Jerome Kern for a moment - even though his music hangs in the memory like a chandelier at the best party you have ever thought of.
Don't let's talk about Edna Ferber's original story - although its radical view of black and white racism perceived something that must have been a little strange in 1927, when Show Boat made its bow.
Philosophically this is not an unserious musical. But philosophy has never had anything to do with Broadway. Show Boat is simply a lovely show that takes you to the laughter and tears of infinity.
Quite frankly I adored it. And quite frankly I didn't expect to. It is a very respectable production - even the tiny detailing of the original orchestrations have been maintained - and it flies like a bird.
The book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II are not always coherent. Indeed it is rarely the simple book musical that you expect. Characters appear and disappear with a disconcerting ease - whatever did happen to the musical theater's most famous octaroon, Julie? - and the story is displayed in inchoate clumps.
Yet that story has a sentimental charm that must be irresistible. Basically a love match between a riverboat gambler and the daughter of a showboat owner, Cap'n Andy, set between the 1880s and 1927, it wanders and wavers around with surprising precision.
The original story upon which it was based was stylish trash with a certain anger, agony, and honesty. Hammerstein caught that feeling - it is his best theatrical book, by the way - and although he never organized it, the musical has the potentialities of class. This much is evident.
But what gives Show Boat its particular air is the Jerome Kern score. He had never composed better, and in fact he never composed as well again.
The music comes out like an endless cornucopia. Every single song is apt and in place, and most of them have become standard musical-comedy classics.
Show Boat has had many productions - including a splendid long running revival in London about 10 years ago with Cleo Laine as the tragic Julie - but this one is different.
Like the magnificent Porgy and Bess currently at the Radio City Music Hall, this Show Boat first drifted downstream with the Houston Grand Opera. Fundamentally it has been staged with the same kind of reverence - using that word in its loosest sense - as if it were an opera.
The entire production - and it is lavish - has an operatic feel to it, and the director Michael Kahn has quite simply given it a classic manner.
There are so many wonderful moments in it - even the curtain call of Donald O'Connor, who is playing Cap'n Andy has a special buck-and-wing grace.
The show looks wonderful, many of the voices have operatic dimensions - for example Bruce Hubbard as Joe, singing Ol' Man River with an intensity that people usually offer to Verdi or Puccini. The lovely Julie of Lonette McKee is simply terrific, but Ron Raines and Sheryl Woods as the lovers are equally exquisite.
This is a show that has everything. And one wonders why they don't write them like that any more.
During the first 25 minutes or so of the new revival of ''Show Boat,'' you'll be nervous. This production, which originated at the Houston Grand Opera, has been traveling the country for months previous to its arrival at the Uris - and looks it. The sets are touring sets, flimsy and crudely lighted; the staging, by Michael Kahn, seems to be chiseled in stone. But it's amazing what glorious voices, in concert with beautiful theater songs, can do to make you forget about all that. My guess is that you, like me, will begin forgetting about all that from the moment Bruce Hubbard sits on a barrel to sing ''Ol' Man River.''
As sung and acted by Mr. Hubbard - with a voice at once chesty and light, booming and supple - ''Ol' Man River'' doesn't just roll along; it crests into a tidal wave. And that tidal wave sets off a flood. Whatever else is to be said about ''Show Boat,'' its Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein 2d score is a treasure beyond estimation. Hardly has ''Ol' Man River'' passed than we are on to ''Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man,'' ''You Are Love,'' ''Why Do I Love You?'' and the show's single Kern-P.G. Wodehouse collaboration, ''Bill.'' Every one of these standards - and let's not forget ''Only Make Believe'' - is sung for keeps by performers as uniformly gifted vocally as Mr. Hubbard.
If ''Show Boat'' isn't the best Broadway score on the boards right now, that's only because of ''Porgy and Bess,'' whose current revival also has roots at the Houston Grand Opera. If it must be said that Mr. Kahn's version of ''Show Boat'' sags when it isn't singing, be grateful that the singing only rarely subsides. Flaws and all, there is more than enough evidence at the Uris to justify this work's giant status in the American musical theater. If only ''Oklahoma!'' were running alongside ''Porgy'' and ''Show Boat,'' New York audiences would indeed be able to see the first half of the modern musical's history in one season.
''Show Boat,'' originally produced by Florenz Ziegfeld in 1927, is chronologically the first of the trio, and perhaps the most startling. Hammerstein's book, adapted from Edna Ferber, was innovative in its time because its songs grew out of character and plot, because its themes (racism, marital strife, psychological self-destruction) were mature, because it did without silly chorus girls. Those assets are academic matters today, and yet other aspects of Hammerstein's libretto remain daring and fresh. Here is a book that, while still tied somewhat to the period conventions of melodrama and burlesque, moves freely from the post-Reconstruction Deep South to Theodore Dreiser's industrialized Chicago, all the way to the radio-and-movie-crazed jazz age of the 1920's. Here, too, is what may be the first modern Broadway ''concept'' musical, built around a metaphor. That old Mississipi River stands for time, which both opens and heals the characters' wounds.
Although the story's actual events are a bit too thin and contrived to support the grandeur of the conception and the music, there's pleasure in watching Hammerstein's pursuit of an epic, adult vision. One sees the groundwork for the musicals he'd write with Richard Rodgers later on. One can even argue that a subtle ''Show Boat'' motif, the appropriation of black music by white singers, foreshadows ''Dreamgirls'' - and that the double-edged use of vaudeville numbers, to indicate historical and character developments, anticipates ''Gypsy'' and ''Follies.'' (Stephen Sondheim, in fact, seems to pay specific homage to ''Why Do I Love You?'' in ''Follies.'')
This is why Hammerstein's libretto, unlike so many others in vintage musicals, need not be swept under the rug; it's worthy of inventive thinking by a contemporary director. It's a waste that Mr. Kahn, working with a decent choreographer (Dorothy Danner) but with scenery that is old-fashioned and noisy as well as tacky, didn't stage the show with the cinematic flow that the writing invites. His uninspired tableaux - rhythmically punctuated by blackouts and the rising of scrims - tries to push ''Show Boat'' back into the realm of operetta, which its creators were trying to escape.
But Mr. Kahn can be forgiven a lot because of the tender care given the score, down to Jack Everly's meticulous conducting of the authentic underscoring and orchestrations, and because of the casting. Lonette McKee, billed as the first black actress to play the mulatto Julie, is a great beauty with an open-hearted, smoky voice and an incandescent presence. Wasted last season in ''The First,'' she should achieve stardom now: her renditions of ''Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man'' (surely the best Gershwin blues not written by Gershwin) and ''Bill'' are heart-stopping. Sheryl Woods, as Magnolia, is another lovely singer and warm actress, and one only wishes that her equally mellifluous romantic partner, Ron Raines, brought more Rhett Butler-style sexual dash to the dissolute Gaylord Ravenal.
As Cap'n Andy, proprietor of the showboat Cotton Blossom, Donald O'Connor gives the show a special resonance: it's fun to watch an ace showman from one vanished era play an ace vaudevillian of an adjacent past. He gets his laughs, by hook and crook, and contributes a delightful (if brief) display of his old razzmatazz tap style in Act II. The comic secondary lovers, precursors of Ado Annie and Will Parker in ''Oklahoma!,'' are handled in a conventional, if pleasing, manner by Paige O'Hara and Paul Keith.
There is standout work by Karla Burns in the Aunt Jemima role of Queenie. Miss Burns has been handed a sizzling, rarely heard song, ''Hey, Feller,'' that's been restored to ''Show Boat'' for this production. Used at the show's climax to help catapult the action from 1905 to 1927, ''Hey, Feller'' brings a vo-de-oh-do exclamation point, complete with a spiffy Charleston, to the end of a score whose opening number (''Cotton Blossom'') harks back to Victor Herbert.
The evening's actual finale, of course, is the last reprise of ''Ol' Man River'' - a song so much a part of our cultural fabric, so pure in its perfect union of yearning lyrics and surging music, that it seems as indestructible as the flag. The misty-eyed audience can't be blamed for leaping to its feet to pay a proper salute.