On the outside of the packaging, this two-disc set is artfully disguised as an American performance of Show Boat. Nothing tells us that the National Symphony Orchestra mentioned is not the one in Washington but the one in London, and the whole performance is based on a production mounted by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Opera North (the one in Leeds, England, not New England) in 1989. The recording, which dates from 1993 but has been newly (and nicely) remastered, is accurately identified as the first complete recorded version of Kern's 1946 revision of the musical, which toned down language that had come to be regarded as racist and added new material to bring the show in line with the bigger song-and-dance productions that were by then the norm. The two-disc set includes some numbers that are usually cut, such as "Dahomey," an affectionate tribute to the first generation of black stage musicals. The singers are mostly English; Willard White, who sings the role of Joe, is a Jamaican-British operatic veteran.
Like many other great works of art, Jerome Kern's Show Boat marked the end of one tradition and the beginning of another. In a way, "Ol' Man River" and the opening "Colored folk work on the Mississippi" represent the culmination of a tradition that began with Stephen Foster's sentimental yet progressive redefinition of the minstrel song three-quarters of a century earlier. Yet Show Boat in another way was something completely new: a serious musical in an age of revues and leggy chorines. The show's greatness resides partly in the brilliant way Kern uses American musical history to retell Edna Ferber's story. Everything in the action is precisely calibrated to a stage in the development of American popular song, running from European-derived operetta to up-to-the-minute jazz age rhythms. Kern was the only composer who could have written it. And it works much better than most musicals when approached from the English light opera end of the spectrum. The singers seem at ease with their light American dialects, and White does a commanding "Ol' Man River." A few of the jazzier numbers, most notably "Can't Help Lovin' dat Man," don't swing like they should, but the performance as a whole is colorful, energetic, and kinetic. When it comes to Show Boat, a work that comes very close to the heart of the American experience, thoroughly worked-out performances tend to have strong positives and strong negatives. This one is unlikely to become a standard rendering of the work, but anyone who finds Show Boat fascinating will benefit from hearing it.