New York Philharmonic Presents Concert Staging of
Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat
By: Ellis Nassour
A star-studded roster of stars and great talent have boarded the Mississippi riverboat Cotton Blossom to entertain New York Philharmonic audiences and theater lovers for the semi-staged concert production of Kern & Hammerstein’s Show Boat, one of our landmark musicals. Drama Desk winner, Tony nominee, and NYC Opera star Lauren Worsham; U.K stage, film, and TV actor/singerJulian Ovenden, three-time Emmy nominee Vanessa Williams; Tony and DD nominee Norm Lewis; and Jane Alexander are headlining the New York Philharmonic semi-staged production of Kern & Hammerstein’s Show Boat for five performances November 5-8 at Avery Fisher Hall.
The concert is in the tradition of past NYPhil triumphs, such as My Fair Lady, Sweeney Todd, and Carousel.
Worsham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) is Magnolia; Ovenden (Downton Abbey) plays love interest Ravenal; Williams (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Trip to Bountiful) is blues singer Julie; Lewis (The Phantom of the Opera, Porgy and Bess, West End Les Miz, original Side Show; TVs Scandal) is dockworker Joe; Tony and Emmy winner and four-time Oscar nominee Ms. Alexander portrays Parthy, the crotchety wife of the showboat’s captain; Fred Willard is Cap’n Andy Hawkins; and blues/gospel singer NaTasha Yvette Williams (A Night with Janis Joplin; Porgy and Bess, The Color Purple) is Queenie, the Cotton Blossom cook.
Co-starring are DD-winner, multiple nominee, and Tony nominee Christopher Fitzgerald (Wicked, Finian’s Rainbow, Young Frankenstein) and Alli Mauzey (Cry-Baby; Wicked) as the star dancers on the Cotton Blossom; Erika Henningsen portraying Kim (Magnolia and Ravenal’s daughter, major regional musical leads, and soon to star in Sheryl Crow’s Diner at Signature), and Edward Watts (NYC Opera The Most Happy Fella, Les Miz tour) playing Stevel; and a 28-strong singing/dancing ensemble.
Always-in-demand Tony and DD-winning composer, arranger, orchestrator Ted Sperling (South Pacific, The Light in the Piazza) has done the adaptation and music directs and directs. Choreographer is Tony and DD nominee Randy Skinner of 42nd Street fame, making his NYPhil debut. Alan Gilbert is music director of the NYPhil.
Show Boat is musical theater’s most revived and revised work. Productions have varied widely, with scenes and songs added or eliminated to serve each production’s director’s vision.
Sperling’s presentation will take the original 1927 score and emphasize the music in its original orchestration by Robert Russell Bennett. It’ll include several rarely heard songs, including "Let’s Start the New Year" and "Mis’ry’s Comin’ Round," which are operatic and blues in scope, respectively, and spotlight the chorus and orchestra; "It’s Getting Hotter in the North," a bluesy number cut during original tryouts; and "Ah Still Suits Me," a highlight of the 1936 B&W original film as sung by soon-to-be Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel (Gone with the Wind) and acclaimed opera and film star Paul Robeson.
The Kern-Hammerstein score includes numerous classics, such as "Ol’ Man River," "Make Believe," and "Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man."
Scenes selected for this concert production will primarily be those including music behind the dialogue. Scenes without underscoring will be included only as needed to tell the story.
"We chose Show Boat is because music is at its core," says Sperling. "The score is by turns lyrical, dramatic, and joyous. It will sound luxurious and dynamic when played by the Philharmonic. Our production will explore the show’s inherent racial issues through its music. Show Boat anticipates more recent musicals like Dreamgirls, Hairspray, and Memphis in its portrayal of the differences between the music of the blacks and whites. I’m very excited to work with the Philharmonic and this extraordinary group of actor-singers on this ground-breaking show."
"The vocal talent in this cast is overwhelming," observes Skinner. "Combining these voices with the Philharmonic and hearing this glorious Kern/Hammerstein score being presented in a concert hall will insure that Show Boat will be a stunning and memorable production.
"It’s been a very creative experience working with Ted," adds Skinner, " and trying to solve the challenges of combining a concert feel and bringing the show to life with the staging of the book. He’s done a remarkable job."
Based on Edna Ferber’s mega bestselling and controversial novel, Show Boat tells the 40-year story of the lives of performers, stagehands, and dock workers who are the denizens of the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi River showboat.
In its premiere, presented by Florenz Ziegfeld at his Ziegfeld Theatre, it was a radical departure in musical storytelling, marrying spectacle with seriousness. It was heralded as "a completely new genre" – a book musical that sidestepped airy plots of operettas and revues with a serious story of racial prejudice, tragic love, and the downfall of addiction. It was acclaimed as a musical "that integrated song, drama, humor, and production numbers into a single and inextricable artistic entity."
M-G-M remade Show Boat in 1951 in glorious Technicolor in actual locations along the Mississippi. However, it was heavily sanitized, especially of racial overtones, and slightly abridged, with some tunes omitted. It starred operetta star Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Marge and Gower Champion, Joe E. Lewis, William Warfield as Joe, and, as Julie, a stunning Ava Gardner, who wanted to do her own singing, but the studio decided to have her dubbed by Annette Warner [on the film soundtrack, you can hear Gardner’s rendition]. There was a mostly silent version made in 1929l. With the evolution of sound hitting theatres and amazing audiences, sound was added for some songs.
NYPhil’s Show Boat is made possible with support from the Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the NY State Council on the Arts. It will later be telecast nationally on PBS’ Live From Lincoln Center.
Tickets are regularly-priced at $65-$175 and available at the Avery Fisher box office, online at nyphil.org, or by calling (212) 875-5656. For showtimes, visit the website.