I've been waiting all my life to see a great production of that monument of musicals, Jerome Kerns "Show Boat". Thanks to Bob Eagle and his Reagle Players-- and to Livent, Inc, whose Broadway revival was the source for most of the Reagle staging--I have now had that satisfaction. What with summer vacationing and an AisleSay hiatus, I wasnt able to pay tribute to Reagles accomplishment in a timely fashion: but tribute must be paid. I can't praise this production too highly. It was every bit as wonderful as I had hoped-- a performance packed with all the good intentions and ambition and heart and skill that characterize the best of the showbiz musical, our quintessential American art form. It was also an object lesson in the mixed messages of showbiz success.
I love the feisty spirit of Bob Eagles Reagle shows, the brash confidence that Broadway can be brought to your local high school stage by the force of talented amateurs will shows which do miraculously combine the "heart" of community theatre with the rigor of Broadway's demands for hard-won and even harder to maintain skills. Some, at least, of the amateurs at Reagle are retired musical theatre professionals whove settled in the Waltham area to raise families, but work hard to keep their skills at a professional level. They want to be in the shows they have always loved, even if only in the chorus or in cameo roles. Also, some of Reagles Equity professionals, like Elizabeth Walsh (who starred in "Brigadoon" and "Guys and Dolls") are natives who consider the Waltham area home and live here when not employed elsewhere. Reagle conducts musical theatre classes in conjunction with Waltham High School, and is training and inspiring new generations of theatre lovers.
However, "Show Boat" was an exception to the usual pattern of production at Reagle, in that instead of merely hiring a few Equity "ringers" to head his cast-- performers who have "lived" the show through long runs or even longer tours, who are able to model the style of the Broadway show for the locals and set a standard locals exert themselves to equal or better-- Eagle hired thirty Equity performers, enough to do a completely professional version of a somewhat smaller scale musical. Some local Equity and community theatre actors noses were put out of joint by this, and there was a rumble of dissatisfaction along the grapevine about "outsiders" getting roles and wages denied locals. It seems to me that the situation represents, once more, a lost opportunity for the community to face and reflect on the tragic subtext of the shows affirmation of the Negro contribution to the American musical.theatre. Almost all the African-Americans in the show were "outside hires", and almost all the "outside hires" in the production were African-American.
The main leads were "outsiders", as is customary. Eagle went to the top of the profession to secure Hal Prince's Magnolia, Gay Willis, who is simply unsurpassable in the starring role. Willis is not only a superb singer, floating a silvery tone while phrasing for maximum emotional expressiveness and absolute clarity of diction, but also a consummate actor. She was instantly and equally convincing-- and beautiful-- as a starry-eyed kittenish teenager and as a middle aged grande dame of the stage, just hrough body language alone, without saying a word. When Willis did open her mouth, the singing and speaking voice that issued from it was characterized with the same amazing skill. Willis has lived with this role for years, and apparently spent much of her time deepening and perfecting it. Her Magnolia was alive and changing every instant she was on stage, and each of her entrances showed the effects of what had happened off stage since last we saw her. Kudos to Reagle, for bringing this extrordinary performer home to Waltham, where a few fortunate high school students could sharing scenes with her, and ordinary suburban folks can see her artistry close up for one third the price of a seat in the back row of a Broadway house's second balcony.
The husband and wife team of Kirby and Beverly Ward, who played the Cotton Blossoms specialty dancers Frank Schultz and Ellie May Chipley, also did the roles in the National Tour. In addition to their professional polish and charm they contributed depth, thanks to their years of living and performing as a unit. Wherever they were on stage, whatever the demands of plot and choreography, they had power left over with which to fill in reams of unwritten background and history.
Another of Reagle's outstanding ringers was the celebrated Broadway Joe, Andre Solomon-Glover-- who also played in the Reagle's earlier "Guys and Dolls". It would be perfectly understandable if Solomon-Glover, whose baritone has graced the concert halls of Europe, had grown weary of reprising "Old Man River", but there was no sign of that in his full hearted and full throated delivery. Joes part in "Showboat" has been shorn of complexity over the years, stripped of comedy, sexuality, and cynicism, the sad culmination of a process of well-meant but pusillanimous revision begun early on when the great Paul Robeson insisted on substituting a more politically correct term for "niggers" in Oscar Hammersteins hard-hitting lyrics. Solomon-Glover supplies the expected icon of suffering, nobility, and wisdom that is all thats left of Robesons far richer version of Joes role. Janelle Robinson, Hal Princes understudy for Joes wife Queenie, took over the part on the Tour. Robinson has a voice like velvet to wrench the heart in the spiritualish "Misrys Comin Round", and the warm stage presence of a domesticated Sybill.
Mike O'Carroll as Cap'n Andy, the navagator, director, guiding spirit, and embodiment of the childlike heart of a travelling players determination to entertain, is uncannily like the brilliant 1927 original, Charles Winninger. (Wittingers performance is preserved, along with the Andys "Cotton Blossom" theme, by the faithful 1937 movie.) Like Winninger, OCarroll does a star turn in the improvisation Andy puts on when his actors desert a showboat stage menaced by exuberant audience gunfire. Cap'n Andy plays every role and at breakneck speed condenses two and a half acts of melodrama plot into five minutes of hilarious histrionics, his final flourish and collapse capped by a triumphant impressarios shout of ''No refunds!''
Parthenia, Capn Andys wife and mythic opposite, is Yankee practicality personified. With every playful impulse rigidly suppressed, Parthy serves the business of entertainment as manager, bookkeeper, and enforcer of the hard-hearted social code hidden under the guise of moral superiority. The publishers blurb for "Showboat" describes the ill-starred romance and between boat owners daughter Magnolia and the handsome and well-born but penniless Southern gambler Gaylord Ravenol as taking place against her fathers oppositionbut in fact it is Magnolias mother Parthy who is relentlessly opposed. Capn Andy sees Ravenols courtship as the opportunity to employ a potential matinee idol, the wooers handsome face and gentlemanly manners a box office asset when he plays love scenes with Magnolia on the Cotton Blosoms stage. Parthy knows a charming loser when she sees one, though, and she warns Magnolia to put a strict guard on her heart if she hopes to survive in the dog eat dog world of business. The theatre is lies and nonsense and, as the lovers introductory song admits, "Make Believe", fit to dazzle the rubes and part them from their money. But disaster looms when a girl lets the theatres sentimental illusions be her guide.
Parthy is also the enforcer of Jim Crow, so the young Magnolia has had to hide her friendships with the black employees she considers part of her show boat family, and conceal the lessons she gets from them in "coon" and "minstrel" music and dance. The exploitation of the talent and toil and back balcony patronage of black people is absolutely necessary to the Show Boat, as it is to American society generallybut that embarrassing debt must never be acknowledged. One of the Cotton Blossoms troupe, Pete, is rejected when he tries to seduce Julie, the Cotton Blossoms popular leading lady. Pete then tells the Mississippi sheriff that Julie has "Negro blood", and her most effective love song, "Cant Help Loving Dat Man" is a "coon song" learned from her kin who were formerly slaves. Julies husband, Steve, sensitively played by Reagle stalwart R.Glen Mitchell, makes the most romantic gesture imaginable, which is at the same time a simple reenactment of the truth: Steve cuts his arm and Julies, mingles the flow, and tells the sheriff that he, too, has "Negro blood". Parthy, who is respected in the Southern community for her Puritan rigidity, is asked to testify to the veracity of Steves claim, which she finds herself able to do. To Parthy, as to other willfully blind American realists, "Negro" is a taint so potent that one drop however come by changes a persons metaphysical status from citizenship to subjection. The sheriff than rescinds his treat of a lynch mob. "Passing" is criminal, but nigger-loving and miscegenation are the capital crimes in a country determined to maintain its essential lie of racial superiority.
Parthy then states what all the show folk know but are ashamed to admit: Julie and her white husband must be expelled from the Showboat family. This is a shocking scene, the pity and terror of it as fresh today as it was three quarters of a century ago, when Edna Ferbers novel first brought it to life. Unlike Parthy, the sympathetic show folk and contemporary audiences are allowed to recognize that the couples expulsion is a great sin, an unexpungable wrong that diminishes everyone. The universal beauty of art is defeated by the ugly particularity of American racism. Forcing that momentary recognition is the unsurpassed achievement of "Showboat", and it happens midway through the first act. The second act follows the ongoing soap opera of Magnolias personal life, and the successful passing of the torch of musical performance on to a third generation. But it also foregrounds the integration of African music and dance into popular American art forms, even as its background illustrates the continuing resistance to social integration. Kerns music quotes music hall and vaudeville as well as ragtime and jazz, while Susan Stromans choreography characterizes the decades preoccupations in dance. Even as African contributions come to be what makes the music typical of the Broadway show in the late twenties "American", the shows black performers recede to the wings, allowing "Showboat"s moment of recognition to fade into memory. Weve come a long way from 1880 to 1927, havent we? From crude melodrama and bigotry to the sophistication Of the Great White Way and oops.
The fading is even easier in the present version. First, the coon and minstrel material that was so large a part of the original conception has been excised over the years. Magnolia no longer dons blackface, or plays the banjo, hasnt since about 1940. Magnolia in the1990s still owes a big debt to Julie, who taught her the best of what she knows as an artist. When Gaylord deserts her in Act Two and Magnolia tries to go back to performing, she auditions with Julies signature song, "Cant Help Lovin Dat Man". Julie, deserted too, miraculously reappears in time to sacrifice her own nightclub job in Chicago in order to give the destitute Magnolia a break. But the uncomfortable elements of plagiarism and parody in the white performers success have been edited out of the script, and,in so far as is possible, from Kerns revelatory score. Second, somethinglets hope it isnt some confused notion of feminismhas softened the scripts Parthy and diminished her mythic stature. The 1990s Parthy, engagingly performed by Darcy Puliam, is assigned the lilting "Why Do I Love You" to sing as a lullaby to her grandchild, Kim. Later, Parthy is brought front and center in the Act Two finale wearing a flappers short skirt, to hoof a few bars of a dance routine with the grandchild who has become a Broadway star. Edna Ferber must be spinning in her graveher novels Parthenia would no more bare her limbs and dance a Black Bottom than she would walk naked across the levee with a bone through her nose. What contortions well still go through, to contrive a 1990s "happy ending"!
Act one of "Showboat" boldly tackles the cruelest contradictions in American values-- honor and romance and commerce, democratic ideals and racial oppression-- and illustrates how love and loyalty and artistic expression are crushed between these opposing forces. Act two reintegrates romance and commerceRavenals version of honor has been shown up as impossible over the long term-- and celebrates Broadway as the expression of progress. But this is stage illusion, compounded of sentimentality and glitz.. The celebration works in the theatre, thanks to Scott Taylors joyous adaptation of: Susan Stroman's brilliant choreography. But after Jeffrey Leonards crackerjack band has put away their instruments, by the time youve whistled all you can remember of the haunting score, the Big Questions raised by Hammersteins book creep back into your conscience, demanding consideration if not answers.
Show Boat is as big and bold a work of musical theatre as has ever been made, perhaps because it was launched when the United States was on an economic roll. Bankrolls were bulging, stock markets booming, Broadway glittering, the miracle of the motion picture was promising to bring the best of music and dance and drama to the smallest American town. Jerome Kern undertook this huge work to explain and justify the American way with music, and why not? A triumphant handful of Jewish immigrant composers were inventing a Broadway idiom that incorporated the vitality of Jazz, the expression of the oppressed and despised Negro, into the European Operetta. If this happy union could create a wonderfully new and peculiarly American art form, why couldnt it inspire a new social contract, a new blossoming of community, a new birth of freedom, in which all would participate with the generous empathy and tolerance that is the artists backstage ideal? The contemporaneous flowering of the Harlem Renaissance made it look as if art might save us Americans from ourselves. Someday we were going to be able to tell each other our stories, teach each other our dances, work, fight, and love together.
Alas, it hasnt happened. "Showboat", like "Porgy and Bess", is a monument to that lost moment of confident hope. Every revival demonstrates where we are in relationship to where we were, and the joy of the performance itself must be attained in the face of a thousand instances of failure. We need this show, but who can put it on? Who will be in the audience? On Broadway and the National Tour, audience faces that were not white were few and far between, Im told. Bob Eagle for the first time in 30 years of community production had to hire chorus members, because the community of which his theatre is a part is a segregated one. It isnt segregated by law, or by the violence of Jim Crow, or even by the bigotry of business pragmatists like Parthy. If you could judge by the great pleasure the performers on the Waltham stage took in one anothers company, you wouldnt think it was segregated at all. But the majority of the black chorus were there, could only be there, because they were paid. In America today, with a few extraordinary exceptions, the races may come together for money, or for sport, or for charity, but not yet for amateurism, for love. Whats that lyric again? ".. work, while the white folks play".