Strife on the Mississippi

A controversy over racial stereotypes has dogged the remounting of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's Show Boat. But the art and soul of this 1927 musical remains the beautiful song "Ol' Man River." Sung by a character who is an ex-slave, it reflects both a protest against the subjugation of African-Americans and a longing for the eternal couched in secular terms. The magnificently indifferent Mississippi River is a backdrop for the frustrations of life--and in its sheer ongoingness, a symbol of hope.

This remarkable song is reprised several times during the show, and the actor who plays the ex-slave Joe has a magnificent bass voice powerful enough to evoke an almost religious experience. Michel Bell is reason enough to see this Broadway road show at the Buell. But there are other reasons, too. This is quite simply the best production--troubling though its sentiments may occasionally be--to visit Denver in a long while.

Show Boat is one of the few Broadway musicals that actually require proficient acting technique to be performed successfully. Its female stars, Karen-Angela Bishop (Miss Julie), Anita Berry (Queenie) and Teri Hansen (Nola), are terrific performers as well as opera-trained singers. Kevin Gray, a baritone with a tenor's range who plays the principal role of Gaylord, is no slouch, either.

But the show is based on an Edna Ferber novel that, while describing racism, steered clear of tackling it head-on. And no matter how hard the scriptwriters at first and director Hal Prince at last labored to clean it up, it remains a problem piece. Musical comedies require quick fixes to tough problems--niceties of plot have to give place to musical numbers and dance routines, so it's hard to explain all that needs to be explained. And when a particularly egregious injustice is committed against a character, there's no time to comment on it, because the show-within-the-show has to go on.

The story concerns a group of itinerant actors who float from town to town along the Mississippi doing shows aboard a steamboat. The beautiful Miss Julie, star of the nightly melodrama, is married to Steve, her leading man. She's close friends with Cap'n Andy's talented daughter, Magnolia, but Nola's mom thinks herself too good for all that show-biz riffraff and tries to break up the friendship. And when the local sheriff discovers that Miss Julie is part black, the laws against miscegenation threaten to put her husband in jail. In a chivalrous gesture, Steve cuts her finger, drinks her blood and proclaims himself a "white man with more than a few drops of Negro blood in him." But Steve doesn't turn out to be chivalrous in the end. Once he and Miss Julie are driven off the boat and on to Chicago, he deserts her, leaving her broken, vulnerable to drink, and on her way to an ignominious death.

Meanwhile, Nola has married another weakling--a gambler named Gaylord Ravenal--and moves with him to Chicago, where he likewise deserts her and their daughter. (Director Prince makes Gay out to be a shamed man rather than a scoundrel, but it's not convincing.) So Nola goes to an audition at a fancy club where, unbeknownst to her, Miss Julie sings. Julie has been warned that one more alcoholic binge will land her on the street. But when she sees that her beloved Nola needs a chance, she leaves without a word. Nola gets Julie's place and rises to fame and fortune, while Julie disappears into the gutter.

Time passes, and Nola returns with her grown daughter to her roots on the river. Miss Julie's fate, though, is left to the imagination, and it's a Christian martyrdom that, however noble, feels peculiarly irrational in the Nineties. Miss Julie's selflessness rankles the viewer, because it is never acknowledged by the other characters and because it is simply too much to ask of a woman who's been so abysmally mistreated. After all, why should Nola reap such great rewards when both ladies are equally talented? Prince has done everything he can to underscore the injustice done to Julie, but the play itself makes those efforts insufficient; it says, in effect, that Julie has to redeem her African heritage through this grand gesture for her dear white friend, and that stinks.

In an attempt to defy the limitations of Ferber's tale, the other black characters have been given more lines than were called for in the original script. Prince has also tried to mitigate the characters' subservient positions in society by demonstrating America's dependence on black labor and on the contributions of black music. But many viewers may still feel uncomfortable with the story.

And yet what is good here is very, very good. A lot of great talents work together on this stage to say something meaningful about America and about human relationships--through the music, if not directly through the script. Cloris Leachman gives an expansive performance as Nola's mom, a narrow spirit who blossoms just a little in the end. And Len Cariou makes a memorable Cap'n Andy.

But the really special effects are those luscious voices--too heavily miked for the Buell, perhaps--that so fully flesh out songs like "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and "Dance Away the Night." And nothing that has graced the Buell recently (with the possible exception of La Traviata) can touch Bell's massive, magnetic "Ol' Man River."

Show Boat, through June 14 at the Temple Buell Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.

 
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