KPBS AIRDATE: JANUARY 7, 2000
SONG: “Ol’ Man River”
Ol’ Man River nearly slowed to a standstill. In the sluggish touring production of “Show Boat” now at the Civic Theatre, neither the Mighty Mississip nor anything else just kept rolling along. And since this pared-down production came so close on the heels of the brilliantly inventive, multiple award-winning Susan Stroman revival, which went on tour from Broadway but never stopped in San Diego, we got a double dose of disappointment.
The promotional material was so nebulous that it was never made clear that this was NOT that other, blockbuster production, with its fabulous, moving-river set and its 75 ebullient performers. No, this one’s a tiny, 27-member non-Equity production, meaning that these aren’t the high caliber, union actors we expect from San Diego Playgoers’ Broadway-quality, high-ticket road shows. It should never have drifted in.
Virtually nothing was done to enhance this solid-gold standard. Instead, it feels clumsy and outmoded. The sets are static and unimaginative, the direction and acting are wooden, and the choreography is an embarrassment, likely because there are no dancers in the cast, despite the requirement of a dancing chorus and two hoofers as secondary leads. Even the music from the pit, a wan 7-piece ensemble, is so muffled and passionless, it sounds for all the world like piped-in, pre-recorded accompaniment. This makes mincemeat of Jerome Kern’s lush and magnificent score.
The first act is interminable, 90 minutes of non-engaging pap. The focus is on the singing, but there’s no heart behind it. Even that seminal showstopper, “Ol’ Man River,” the philosophical musings of a black dockworker, fails to inspire, though Philip Lamar Boykin has a rich and melodious voice. The pace picks up a bit in the second act, when the high drama kicks in, with a marital separation and an alcoholic downslide of a leading lady. Tragic Julie La Verne, the outcast mulatto, gets two of the best songs in the show: “Bill” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine.” Siphiwe McKenzie has a lovely look and a charming voice, but she doesn’t give much nuance or new interpretation to her numbers.
“Show Boat” is a classic by any definition, a recognized landmark in American theatre. It’s got a bevy of beautiful songs, including “After the Ball,” ” Make Believe” and the humorous “Life Upon the Wicked Stage.” It has a book and lyrics, by Oscar Hammerstein II, that are still an astonishing achievement almost 3/4 of a century later. When it opened in 1927, it was a groundbreaking departure from the frothy musicals of the past. The characters were more three-dimensional, the music was more skillfully integrated into the libretto, and the plot dared to deal with such serious subjects as unhappy marriage, interracial love and the hard life of blacks in the South.
In this production, the characters are played either as cardboard or caricature. Only the ingénue Magnolia feels real. Jennifer Evans has a mellifluous voice, and her luscious reprise of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” is the high-point of the evening. For some reason, though, the musical director obviously encouraged old-fashioned crooning, so all the leads cloyingly slide through every tone on the way from one note to the next.
Overall, the group vocals are good, but the energy is so forced, the pace so plodding, that this production could easily be retitled, “Slow Boat.”
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.