What's Hot in London -- June 1998

Special Features   What's Hot in London -- June 1998
Sheridan Morley reviews major recent London openings.

Sheridan Morley reviews major recent London openings.

Musicals don't come a lot better than Show Boat (Prince Edward), and indeed they wouldn't come at all had it not been for this one. Back in 1927 Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein got together to write what was effectively the first Broadway score ever to have a coherent plot and integrated songs. But what was most important about the original Show Boat, based on Edna Ferber's great sprawling novel of riverboat life, was that it also tackled such then-scandalous themes as those of mixed marriages, gambling, infidelity, illegitimacy and everything else that made life upon the wicked showboat stage such fun.

For the purposes of this new revival, which comes to us from Toronto via New York with the original touring cast, Hal Prince has treated the show with all the operatic reverence usually accorded to Porgy and Bess almost a decade later. Prince has seen in Show Boat, traditionally a light romantic musical, a dark history of America itself and has accordingly drastically rebuilt the show, tearing out the whole Chicago World's Fair, which used to open Act Two, and giving us instead a series of cinematic montages, which get us through the First World War and most of the twenties, admittedly somewhat abruptly despite Susan Stroman's breath-takingly vital and period-accurate choreography.

There has, of course, always been a problem with the book of Show Boat, which is that no stage version un-der about eight hours could hope to encompass the enormity and sprawl of the original manuscript. So it is left to each decade and director to fillet out the bits of plot that they think will make the most sense to a contemporary audience, and sometimes even now the leaps in time and space are a problem; a hero like Gaylord Ravenal gets most of the first act and then nothing till the closing seconds of the second. Characters appear, disappear, reappear with almost cavalier disregard for any real development of plot or character, so that the whole show comes to resemble one of those primitive picture wheels you held to your eyes and flicked through a related series of images in three-dimension.

But from the moment Michel Bell comes out to sing "Ol' Man River" and the great American classical actor George Grizzard invites us aboard the steamboat, we know we are in safe and lyrical hands; as hit after hit from "Make Believe" through "Why Do I Love You?" to "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and even the wildly misplaced "Bill," it becomes evident that Show Boat was not only the first American musical but also the one that made all others possible.

There is a joyous historical neatness in the fact that the young lyricist here, Oscar Hammerstein, went on to remake and rebuild the Broadway musical twice more in a single lifetime, first with Oklahoma! and then by becoming the tutor and mentor of Stephen Sondheim. So a direct line runs back even now to Show Boat across more than 70 years, and this epic, rambling musical history of midcentury America now comes up looking as fresh as ever it could have in 1927, thanks to a truly wonderful company that also includes Carole Shelley and Joel Blum, far and away the greatest vaudeville comic dancer since Donald O'Connor or Ray Bolger.

If you only plan to see one musical this year, make it this one. As a history of showbiz America it may be a little patchy, but as a master plan for the construction of musicals from the opening chorus to the very last finale, it is a master class in what the American theatre still does best those vast sweeps of musical emotion from the depths of despair ("Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'" ) to the unbridled showbiz joy of "Life Upon the Wicked Stage."
Hal Prince has finally realized that this is above all else a show about family, and he even gives one of its greatest love ballads not to the young romantic leads but to a grandmother with a baby in her arms; yet somehow as the riverboat rolls through two acts, she takes us with her on a journey that is nothing less than the discovery of America's greatest art form.

Currently celebrating its 15th year with no subsidy of any kind, the tiny but enterprising Man in the Moon pub theatre at the foot of the King's Road Chelsea is reviving the first major AIDS play, Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, originally seen over here with Martin Sheen at the Royal Court in 1986. Yet this is no period piece; it is a still sadly topical account of AIDS victims and the constant uneasiness of the Establishment in deciding how to treat them politically, socially and medically. A great cry of journalistic and dramatic rage, it indicts then-President Reagan and Mayor Koch for coming too little and too late to the rescue of a gay community already beginning to be decimated by plague. Its title is from an Auden poem, which also includes the line "All I have is a voice to undo the folded lie," and Kramer's play is at least partly autobiographical in that he, too, was sidelined from his own organization for shouting too loudly in political and social frustration at a fundamentally anti-gay world.

"Who cares if another faggot dies?" is one of the central questions of a still-heartrending script, and it is that sense of rage and despair that gives a raw play its tremendous energy and emotional depth. John Guerrassio as the crusader, Warren Katz as his straight lawyer brother and Monica Ernesti as the paralyzed doctor are all superb in Richard Bridge's taut production. There is one other line from that same Auden poem that still reverberates here: "We must love one another, or die."--

By Sheridan Morley

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