Most troubling, however, is the political shortsightedness of this revival. Ferber's book was openly racist, but the play isn't. An interracial cast was revolutionary in 1927, when the show was first produced; a revival in 1998 that has merely token black roles is offensive. In the performance I saw, baritone Michel Bell had the thankless job of playing the role created by Paul Robeson. (Kenneth Nichols has since replaced Bell and faces the same challenge.) The first time I heard Bell's rendition of "Ol' Man River," I couldn't help thinking of Robeson, even though he is blessed with a formidable voice. But the revival doesn't use the character or its singer's vocal talents well. Where Robeson sang "Ol' Man River" once, Prince turns the song into a musical motif, having Joe gratuitously reappear as a kind of one-man Greek chorus.
By the third or fourth time Joe opens his mouth, the role and the song are not just tiresome, they've veered dangerously close to racial stereotype -- that of the Noble Black Man singing about his troubles. Couple this irony with the fact that Prince, who took liberties with dialogue and staging in other areas of the show, keeps the black characters literally in the background. The racial imbalance is downright disturbing. Perhaps a sophisticated marriage of Broadway and politics is too much to ask. After all, Broadway is where Kiss of the Spider Woman provided singing and dancing torture victims.
This touring production of Show Boat, however, could use more happily paired actors, particularly in the instance of Cap'n Andy and Parthy. Jones is proficient, but Cloris Leachman, a formidable actress when not in musical theater, has stepped into a role -- and a show -- that swallows her up. Her rendition of "Why Do I Love You" is sweet, but she doesn't have a Broadway voice, and, for much of the show, she's an afterthought. (Leachman, by the way, is on a short hiatus owing to a family emergency. She returns April 12.)
Other roles are more successfully portrayed. Romantic leads Keith Buterbaugh (Ravenal) and Gay Willis (Magnolia) are well matched in chemistry and voice. Jo Ann Hawkins White's Queenie, Joe's wife, is magnificent; in a perfect world, she'd have more ballads than her one exquisite go at "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'." As Julie, Bishop's rendition of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" early in Act One is not just soulful, it's the high point of the entire production. If only every minute of this fossil had the power to win -- and break -- hearts.
Music by Jerome Kern; book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; directed by Harold Prince; with Cloris Leachman, Dean Jones, Gay Willis, and Keith Buterbaugh. Through May 17. Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW 5th Ave, Fort Lauderdale; 954-462-0222.