Show Boat Stage Synopsis
On a levee on the Mississippi River in the late 1880s, workers load cotton bales while townspeople crowd around a showboat (“Cotton Blossom”). As Captain Andy Hawks leads the Show Boat Parade, he introduces varying talents presented aboard the Cotton Blossom (“Show Boat Parade and Ballyhoo”). When the parade ends, Pete, a wild-eyed local man, approaches the leading lady of the Cotton Blossom, Julie LaVerne. Using a racist expletive, he accuses LaVerne of giving a golden broach he’d given to her to a Black woman. Clearly, the gift was unwelcomed and the Cotton Blossom’s handsome leading man, Steve Baker, fights Pete for bothering his wife. The fight is broken up and Cap’n Andy chalks it all up to another sample of their act; “Jest one big happy family!” The band strikes up again.
Parthy Hawks, Cap’n Andy’s wife, tells Julie she doesn’t want their daughter Magnolia to associate with anyone of her kind. Julie, who loves Magnolia like a sister, runs off saying that if she can’t see Magnolia, she can no longer do the show. Cap’n Andy is torn because Julie is the best leading lady on the river, but he also wants to honor his wife’s wishes.
Gaylord Ravenal, a young gentleman wayfarer, is back in town but, legally, can only stay in Natchez for 24 hours. An optimist, he’ll ride anywhere the river takes him. By chance, he meets Magnolia on the wharf. To keep proper, the two pretend to be already acquainted with one another (“Only Make Believe”). They say goodbye when Ravenal is called to see a local judge. Joe, a Black Cotton Blossom employee, stumbles upon them saying their goodbyes. As Magnolia leaves, he suggests she ask the river what it thinks of boys like Ravenal, for the river must know something about everything (“Ol’ Man River”).
Magnolia sits in the kitchen pantry of the Cotton Blossom with Joe’s wife Queenie when Julie arrives. Magnolia declares she’s in love with a man whom she does not know. Julie says girls like Magnolia don’t fall out of love so easy, saying that she can’t imagine a life not spent loving her own husband (“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”).
The company of the Cotton Blossom rehearses for that evening’s performance of their melodrama. Sheriff Vallon arrives declaring that there is an illegal interracial marriage onboard, detailing that Julie had a white father and a Black mother. Because she’s married to Steve, a white man, their union is against the law of the state. Horrified, Steve and Julie pack their things. Andy cancels that evening’s show, unsure of who will fill their roles. Frank, a supporting actor in the show, mentions a handsome fellow he met on the wharf who might be perfect to take over Steve’s part, and introduces Andy to Gaylord Ravenal. He doesn’t seem keen on the proposition until Ravenal notices Magnolia, who is then offered Julie’s lead role opposite him. Julie and Steve leave the Cotton Blossom, and Andy begins directing Ravenal and Magnolia in a love scene.
Three weeks later, Ravenal and Magnolia are popular stars in demand at the box office. While selling tickets, Ellie is avoiding Frank’s proposition of marriage when two backwoodsmen approach. They purchase two tickets for that night’s show, ensuring they won’t have any trouble should they arrive carrying guns. When they leave, two girls recognize Ellie as an actress and gush over how glamorous her life must be. Ellie explains that though her profession may be different, it’s never what a girl supposes (“Life Upon The Wicked Stage”).
Though Andy disagrees, Parthy is concerned about Ravenal’s admiration for Magnolia, saying she has reason to suspect his character. Queenie asks about the size of the audience that night and Andy says that it’s full except for the balcony. Queenie thinks Andy isn’t doing enough to talk to the Black customers and decides to help him (“Ballyhoo”).
In the Cotton Blossom’s sold-out auditorium, Magnolia and Ellie play sisters when Ravenal enters as Magnolia’s love interest. The backwoodsmen sit in box seats with Parthy and excitedly watch their first play but stand up and brandish their guns when Frank appears as the villain to Magnolia’s character. When Frank fearfully exits the scene, Andy must complete the play by telling the story by himself.
On the Cotton Blossom later that night, Ravenal asks Magnolia to marry him in Greenville the next morning, when her mother will be out of town on business. Hesitant, Magnolia wonders whether she will always mean as much to Ravenal as she does now. Ravenal, determined, explains how his fortune changed since meeting her (“You Are Love”). On the levee at Greenville the next morning, large groups of townspeople have come excited to see the two leads get married. Just as festivities get underway, Parthy storms in with Sheriff Vallon, announcing that Ravenal killed a man last year, though the Sheriff adds that it was in self-defense. Andy admits to having done the same when he was 19 years old. Outraged, Parthy faints and the wedding goes on joyously.
A few years have passed. At the World’s Fair in Chicago, where Ravenal and Magnolia now live, crowds enthusiastically take in the sights and attractions (“At the Fair”). Magnolia remains vague when Parthy asks what Ravenal does for a living, commenting on how well off they are now. Ravenal and his friend appear to have just made a large sum of money. Ravenal suggests Magnolia and her parents celebrate with a lavish dinner, but Parthy declines disapprovingly on behalf of Andy, leaving the newlyweds to dine without them. Before Ravenal returns to his card game, Magnolia tells him how happy she is, how much she loves him and how much she misses him when he’s gone (“Why Do I Love You?”).
Eleven years later, Ellie and Frank are seeing a potential home in Chicago. The landlady divulges that the current tenant is a gambler who’s been losing all his possessions to pawn, including his wife’s wedding ring. Just then, Magnolia appears, and it’s clear that Ravenal is the said gambler, and they are to be evicted for not paying rent. As Frank, Ellie and Magnolia catch up, avoiding the elephant in the room, an envelope from Ravenal is delivered. It’s money to care for their daughter, Kim, and a letter detailing that he is out of money and must leave them. Ellie and Frank offer to help her get a job assisting their new act.
In rehearsal at The Trocadero, Frank and Ellie warm up. The manager demands to see his leading lady, an older Julie LaVerne, sing a new song, despite her feeling under the weather since Steve left her due to her drinking problem (“Bill”). He threatens that if she goes off on another tear tonight, she will lose her job. Julie dismisses the threats and goes backstage just before Magnolia arrives at the stage door. Frank introduces Magnolia to the manager, who says there are no spots left on the bill. Pessimistically, he watches her sing while accompanying herself on the guitar (“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” Reprise), while Julie watches from behind the curtains. Unseen by Magnolia, Julie leaves out the stage door with her belongings. When Magnolia finishes the song, the manager is unimpressed. The doorman relays a message from Julie that she’s gone on that tear, and the manager hires Magnolia after all, in Julie’s place.
At St. Agatha’s Convent, Ravenal says goodbye to his daughter before leaving town. She promises to think of him all the time, and to never forget what he told her; to make believe (“Only Make Believe” Reprise).
Back at the Trocadero, on New Year’s Eve, Ellie and Frank perform their act (“Goodbye My Lady Love”). A tipsy Andy is ushered to a table. Frank is surprised to reunite with Andy and explains that Magnolia is coincidentally opening her act at this very restaurant this evening. She begins her number (“After the Ball”) but the crowd initially rejects her, frustrated by the sudden absence of the show’s star, Julie. However, in the middle of her song, Magnolia spots her father in the audience and regains confidence, thus winning over the crowd. Magnolia and her father joyously reunite to wish each other a Happy New Year just as the clock strikes midnight.
On the stern of the Cotton Blossom in 1927, Joe and Queenie bicker as always. Queenie remarks that Joe hasn’t changed in all that time. Joe, looking to the river, doesn’t think much has changed at all (“Ol’ Man River” Reprise).
Andy and Ravenal sit on the upper deck of The Cotton Blossom listening to Magnolia’s voice on a radio. She has become a Broadway star. When her song finishes, the announcer reveals that, though Magnolia Ravenal retired six years ago, her name is kept on by her musical comedy star daughter, Kim. Andy and Ravenal, who ran into each other the day before, anticipate Magnolia’s arrival the following evening. Parthy calls on Andy, who goes to see her, leaving Ravenal to imagine seeing Magnolia once again after all these years (“You Are Love” Reprise).
As boys and girls sing on a slightly modernized Cotton Blossom at the Greenville levee in 1927, Frank and Ellie apologize to Andy for having to leave the show early to make an eleven o’clock boat out of town. Ravenal and Magnolia share a warm reunion, as do the rest of the show folk, finally gathered again after so many years.