‘Show Boat’ a rocky but must-see revival

“Show Boat,” usually hailed as the first musical to tell a serious story rather than offer only silly gags and pretty gals, is very hard to revive given its unparalleled size, bold representations of racial prejudice and countless melodramatic flourishes. The New York Philharmonic, which annually presents a concert production of a classic musical like “Sweeney Todd” or “Carousel,” is offering a “Show Boat” that primarily emphasizes Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s sweeping score, with a lot of cut songs and underscoring reinstated.

Although much of the dialogue remains intact, the storytelling is not especially effective here with its turn-of-the-century flavor removed due to a lack of scenery. The blocking around the stage is also ineffective and the actors appear under-rehearsed.

Even so, this remains a rare opportunity to soak in an extremely important musical and indulge in its majestic and melodic score with a full orchestra present.

The cast is very appealing, including the vocally exquisite Julian Ovenden and Lauren Worsham as the lovers, Fred Willard and Jane Alexander as the girl’s bickering parents, Norm Lewis as the worn-out worker who delivers the well-known anthem “Ol’ Man River” and the gorgeous Vanessa Williams as an actress doomed by a family secret and alcoholism.