The word "passion" is most always used to describe grand opera, yet there is no better way to explain the marvel that is "Showboat". Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern transformed Edna Ferber's sprawling story of America (from 1887 to 1927) into a musical of passionate ideas --- dignity, loyalty, racism and survival.
"Showboat" illuminates a part pf American history we don't like to remember, when lynchings and laws against intermarriage were comonplace. Hammerstein and Kern changed the history of musical theater with "Showboat" by introducing serious moral issues into a genre which, up until 1927, was seen as sheer entertainment.
Harold Prince's revival (at the Wang Center through 13 August) became the most honored show of the 1994-5 Broadway season, winning five Tony awards for best direction, best choreography, best constumes, best revival of a musical and best featured actress in Gretha Boston --- who is one of the treasures of the broadway tour. Her luminous rendition of the chilling "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'" (which was cut from the original for being too operatic) sets the stage for the evil which is about to tear apart a riverboat family and change all their lives.
The secondary characters in "Showboat" are so beautifully drawn that you miss them when the story leaves them behind: Queenie (Boston) cooks for the performers and is surrogate mother to the Captain's young daughter. Queenie's man Joe (Andre Solomon- Glover) loads and unloads the boat and Julie (Debbie DeCoudreaux) is their leading lady until she and her husband have to flee Mississippi because of the white man's law that forbids marriage between the races.
Prince knew what audiences know: that the transcendent "Ol' Man River" stops the show and defines it as well, though it's only a small part of the story. Edna Ferber recalled that when the musical opened in 1927, audiences were so moved that they demanded it be sung over and over. So Prince reprises it many times, bringing Joe into the second act as a spiritual presence, aging him along with the young couple whose courtship and marriage is centerstage.
Sarah Pfisterer is the captain's spunky daughter who falls for handsome riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal (John Ruess) despite the strenuous objections of her mother (Karen Morrow). Comic Relief is provided by Tom Bosley and Karen Morrow as Magnolia's sparring parents and by Kirby Ward and Beverly Ward as the frisky vaudeville stars of the riverboat show. (Kirby Ward's tribute to Donald O'Connor lights up the stage.)
The Tony-winning choreography by Susan Stroman is a joyous celebration of the popular dances of the times, from cakewalk to charleston ... and they traverse the decades via a cinematic device. Just as in movies when a pinspot would zero in on a revolving door to signify the passage of time, a revolving door of set designer Eugene Lee's spectacular Palmer House spins to reveal Florence Klotz' sumptuous fashions, with their rising hemlines, through the roaring twenties which close the show and reunite the lovers.
The real star of "Showboat" though is Solomon-Glover, planting his feet way down into the stage to deliver that stirring anthem "Ol' Man River" which speaks to a need for survival and dignity in any age, especially our own.