St. Louis theatergoers have enjoyed a continuing affection for Show Boat ever since it first docked in St. Louis during its national tour in 1929. Back then — and again in 1930 when it debuted at the Muny — this extravagant musical melodrama about life on the Mississippi was profoundly ambitious. At age 83, the still-monumental Show Boat — which is currently receiving its unprecedented fifteenth Muny staging — remains a stunning and involving piece.
The moment the overture begins, the show sets itself apart from the norm. The very first chord (portentous and heavy, like something from Wagner) establishes the motif for the impervious Big Muddy, upon which so much of the story is set. Out of this gloom, jazzy rhythms begin to percolate. Before a single word has been spoken, the show's dynamic — the clash of pastoral river life with the jarring dissonance on shore — is firmly established.
As the plot (a tapestry of Americana during the decades between the dormant 1880s and the Jazz Age 1920s) unfolds, we are treated to a cornucopia of memorable songs, each one a textbook example of musical construction. Consider, for instance, this dilemma: How do you introduce a love song before the characters have fallen in love? Oscar Hammerstein II, Show Boat's young lyricist, solved that problem in the opening scene by having flashy riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal (the suave Danny Gurwin) and the innocent Magnolia Hawks (Leah Horowitz, lovely) meet and then imagine how they might react, were they to succumb to love's spell at first sight. "Make Believe" is such an effective hypothetical that Hammerstein used the same device two decades later in Carousel with "If I Loved You."
After the soon-to-be lovers part, Joe, a black deckhand on the Cotton Blossom, stands alone onstage and begins to sing the timeless "Ol' Man River." Michel Bell interprets Jerome Kern's song with awesome resonance. Even in 95-degree heat, Bell sends chills through the responsive audience. All this, and we're still in scene one. Someone attending Show Boat for the first time might wonder, Where do we go from here? The answer: We go to "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and "You Are Love" (arguably the most soaring duet in all musical theater, gorgeously sung by Gurwin and Horowitz) and the deliciously droll "Life Upon the Wicked Stage." There's simply no other show with such an abundance of riches as Show Boat.
Yet for too long there has not been a definitive version. Just as the Mississippi River has changed course over the decades, so has this musical changed its form. Songs have been carelessly added and deleted with discomforting regularity. Then in 1994 director Harold Prince re-examined and deepened the material. He was assisted by Susan Stroman, whose choreography (restaged here by Peggy Taphorn) infuses the evening with specificity and fluidity. The Prince-Stroman version is on view this week in Forest Park. More often than not, it fills the stage with splendor.
Among the large cast, Jo Ann Hawkins White provides wily counterpoint as Joe's wife, Queenie. White sings a compelling rendition of the stirring "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'." As the vivacious Kim Ravenal, Shannon M. O'Bryan glows as brilliantly as an incandescent light bulb. Arriving late in Act Two, just as the story is beginning to wane, O'Bryan and her splashy Charleston number electrify the stage.
The most perplexing portrayal is given by Gary Beach as Cap'n Andy, master of the Cotton Blossom. The henpecked Andy must instill the story with both humor and sentiment. Beach, a gifted comic performer, gets off to a shaky start in Act One. (Perhaps the excessive heat was to blame, but I've never before seen an actor receive a line cue onstage at the Muny.) Nor is Beach helped by the fact that Andy's bulldog-wife Parthy is being played by Georgia Engel, whose stage persona is one of gentle timidity. Although Beach rallies in the second act, ultimately this American classic transcends its individual performances. Majestic music, gloriously sung, and a story as enduring as the mighty Mississippi itself make this Show Boat a river journey well worth taking.