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Show Boat (1929/1936/1951)

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Article 2 - The Musical Play


Distinguished Audience Finds New Production One of Ziegfeld's Best.

Play is Staged Lavishly.

Story Adheres Closely to the Edna Ferber Novel of Floating Mississippi Theatre.

New York Times, December 28, 1927 page 26

The worlds of Broadway and Park Avenue and their respective wives put on their best bibs and tuckers last night and converged at Mr. Ziegfeld's handsome new playhouse on Sixth Avenue. There they milled about elegantly in the lobby, were pictured by flashlight photographers and finally got to their seats and to the business in hand. That was the inspection of the newest offering from the worships of the maestro, the much-heralded musical adaptation of Edna Ferber's novel, "Show Boat."

From such remote centres of theatrical omniscience as Pittsburgh, Washington and Philadelphia had come the advance word that it was better than good some reports even extravagantly had it that here was Mr. Ziegfeld's superlative achievement. It would be difficult to quarrel with such tidings, for last night's performance came perilously near to realizing the most fulsome of them.

All right, there you have it: "Show Boat" is, with a few reservations in favor of some of the earlier "Follies" and possibly "Sally," just about the best musical piece ever to arrive under Mr. Ziegfeld's silken gonfalon. It has, barring perhaps a slight lack of one kind of comedy, and an over-abundance of another, and a little slowness in getting under way this last due to the fact that it is crammed with plot which simply must be explained about every ingredient that the perfect song-and-dance concoction should have.

In its adherence to its story it is positively slavish. The adaptation of the novel has been intelligently made, and such liberties as the demands of musical comedy necessitate do not twist the tale nor distort its values. For this, and for the far better than the average lyrics with which it is endowed, credit Oscar Hammerstein 2d, who is rapidly monopolizing the function of author for the town's musical entertainments.

Then, too, "Show Boat" has an exceptionally tuneful score the most lilting and satisfactory that the wily Jerome Kern has contrived in several seasons. Potential son hits were as common last night as top hats. Such musical recordings of amorous reaction as "You Are in [sic] Love," "I Can't Help Lovin' That Man," "Why Do I Love You?" are sufficient for any show to say nothing of "Old Man River," which Jules Bledsoe and a negro chorus make remarkably effective.

If these three contributions book, lyrics and score call for a string of laudatory adjectives, the production compels that they be repeated again and with a short tiger. The colorful scenes on and around the show-boat, playing its course along the Mississippi, that comprise the first act lend themselves well to a variety of effects and have been achieved with Mr. Ziegfeld's unimpeachable skill and taste.

In the second act the nine interludes carry the spectator from the gaudy Midway Plaisance of the World's Fair to the somber quiet of St. Agatha's Convent and then back to the new and modernized floating theatre, 1927 variety. The settings are all atmospherically perfect; the costumes are in the style of each of the periods and there is a finish and polish about the completed entity that caused even a first performance to move with unusual smoothness.

Te recount in any detail the plot of a musical comedy usually is a silly and banal business; to tell Miss Ferber's large and clamorous public what happens to Magnolia and Gaylord Ravenal is unnecessary. But to tell them of the manner in which these characters and the many others of the best seller have been brought to life is something else again.

As Magnolia, Norma Terris appeared to be a revelation, even to the first nighters who had watched her work in pervious dance-and-tune saturnalias. Her realization of Captain Andy's daughter seemed complete, even when she got around to imitating Ted Lewis and Ethel Barrymore in the final, or 11:45P.M., scene. Howard Marsh, one of the more facial tenors, made a handsome and satisfactory Ravenal. Helen Morgan, who is among the town's most adept song saleswomen, was Julie, and purveyed two numbers in her distinctive style. As the dour and formidable New England mother, Party Ann Hawks, Edna May Oliver played with requisite austerity, although she did forget herself long enough to engage in a dance.

But the outstanding hit of the evening seemed to be reserved for Charles Winninger, who cut capers to his heart's content as Captain Andy.

He is in top form, and when Mr. Winninger is in top form he is an extremely waggish fellow. And in a moment during the "Show Boat's" performance when through the defection of an affrightened villain he is compelled to seize the stage and act out the remainder of the play himself, he is extraordinarily persuasive and convincing. Then there are the reliable Puck and White, presenting the low comedy specialties, and others too numerous to mention.

"Show Boat," as it should not be too difficult for the reader to ascertain by now, is an excellent musical comedy; one that comes perilously close to being the best the town has seen in several seasons. It must have afforded its producer, who has poured dollars into it by the thousands, a certain ironic satisfaction to hear the play's Chicago cabaret manager say with an air of finality, "No, I can't afford to take chances with amateurs with a $2,000 production on my hands." Mr. Ziegfeld can't afford to, either.

1927 The New York Times

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