The New York Philharmonic and conductor Ted Sperling offer New Yorkers a rare opportunity to hear the ground-breaking, monumental 1927 musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, with the music in its original form.
The Philharmonic, which annually offers a concert version of a major Broadway musical each fall, has chosen well. Song hit after song hit — the score contains no less than seven standards — bursts out in full throttle renditions from a cast of 40. The orchestra, meanwhile, has been significantly tripled from the original of about 32 pieces to close to a hundred. Right from the beginning of the overture, this Show Boat musically soars; and the effect is nearly rapturous when Julian Ovenden and Lauren Worsham sing those golden ballads "Make Believe" and "You Are Love."
Ovenden, a well-known musical star on the West End but most familiar hereabouts for "Downton Abbey" (where he plays Charles Blake, Mary's suitor who was memorably involved in the pig-farm episode), does gloriously well as Gaylord Ravenal, the riverfront gambler-turned-leading man. Ovenden might be the finest Ravenal we've ever heard; the largest ovation at the opening night performance came — surprisingly — after his rafter-rattling, second act solo reprise of "You Are Love." Worsham, late of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, plays his opposite, Magnolia.
Also on hand are Vanessa Williams as Julie; Norm Lewis as Joe, who sings "Ol' Man River" again and again as the show spans 40 years; NaTasha Yvette Williams as Queenie, the cook on the Cotton Blossom; Fred Willard as Cap'n Andy; and Christopher Fitzgerald and Alli Mauzey as the song-and-dance team of Frank and Ellie. Standing out is Jane Alexander, who reveals an unexpected comedic flair as Cap'n Andy's stern wife, Parthy.
Show Boat is one of those musicals that was constantly revised and reconfigured by the authors. Conductor/director Sperling (The Light in the Piazza) — who specializes in vintage musicals — has chosen to concentrate on the original 1927; he also retains the 1927 Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations, flavored with banjo and tuba. (Bennett reorchestrated the show for Broadway revivals in 1946 and 1966, but these are less vibrant.) This means that we get — in addition to the usual Show Boat songs — items like "Mis'ry's Comin' Round" and "It's Getting Hotter in the North" (both of which were cut on the road in 1927); the rarely-used "Till Good Luck Comes My Way," "I Might Fall Back on You," "Queenie's Ballyhoo" and the Midway Barker Sequence and "Ah Still Suits Me," which was written for the 1936 film. The added songs necessarily come at the expense of book scenes, especially in what here seems like a highly sketchy second act, but no matter. The Miscegenation Scene and the Convent Scene are retained, demonstrating the rapt effectiveness of Hammerstein's libretto.
The Philharmonic provides Sperling with an enormous double chorus of 26 (14 black singers and 12 white), which allows us to hear the choral numbers in full force. Choreographer Randy Skinner (42nd Street) includes a fair amount of dance in the limited space along the front of the orchestra. Tappers Kendrick Jones and Correy West are featured in two spots, highlighted by a high-stepping buck-and-wing during "Queenie's Ballyhoo."
Show Boat remains at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall for five performances through Nov. 8. For classic musical enthusiasts, this is a must-see that will leave you gloriously sated by the Kern-Hammerstein score.