KPBS AIRDATE: January 2, 1992
Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly. And Lawrence Welk hadda do “Show Boat” sooner or later. Actually, it’s surprising that it’s so much later, since the ground-breaking musical opened on Broadway in 1927, and the Welk has a penchant for multiple recyclings of its musical hits.
“Show Boat” is based on Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel of life and the floating theaters on the Mississippi. It was quite an unconventional creation by composer Jerome Kern and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II. A first on Broadway: a true musical play based on a novel, with dimensional characters, a believable human story, and songs that dramatized events, illuminated character and provided local color. The show gives a real feel for the time — both when it took place and when it was written.
The action spans the decades from the mid-1880s to the late 1920s. Needless to say, that renders some of the musical less than “”politically correct.”
We meet a stereotypically lazy but overworked black man (whose lot in life is compensated by getting to sing the classic “”Ol’ Man River” — four times). And there are women hopelessly devoted to their irresponsible men (a timeless condition which thankfully left us the legacy of “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man”). Another timely issue, though a little less inflammatory today, is misegenation, or interracial marriage, which sparks a sad turning point in the play and precipitates the downhill slide of the mulatto woman, Julie (warmly played by Fiama Fricano), who does a moving rendition of the soulful “Bill.” These heavy issues give rise to some mighty powerful and memorable songs.
And the singing is the best part of the Lawrence Welk production. The lead actors do the music justice — although I might have hoped for a little heavier emotional load in Joseph Craiger’s resonant renditions of “Ol’ Man River.”
What’s missing, as is not unusual in Frank Wayne’s direction at the Welk, is the sharp conceptual edge of the piece, which is sanded down here to a smooth bump. But the entertainment value is high, the production is spirited and the costumes are colorful.
Only problem is, this show should send you out thinking, not just humming. But well, one out of two’s not bad.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.