Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, music by Jerome Kern
After seeing Daniel Evans’s all singing, all dancing revival of Jerome Kerns’ Show Boat, it is hard to believe that it was originally staged in 1927 and that familiar favourites like "Ol’ Man River" and "Can’t Help Lovin' Dat Man" have been entertaining audiences for almost a century.
Adapted from a novel by Edna Ferber, who also wrote Giant, the musical broke new ground by combining the elements of popular Ziegfeld-style musical comedy with serious social issues and a long historical perspective.
The action of the piece is divided between scenes set on the Mississippi, where the Show Boat passes through the cotton fields of the southern states, and turn of the century New York with its burgeoning entertainment industry which barely conceals the poverty and squalour that lies just below the surface.
Show Boat, with its ensemble of cotton field workers, provides casting opportunities for a talented group of black actors and, while the serious issues surrounding exploited black labour, deep racial prejudice and miscegenation are part of the plot, these are touched on or hidden in the lyrics rather than confronted.
The appearance of the production is impressive. Designer Lez Brotherston has created a highly adaptable set which easily represents a variety of different venues and provides a coup de theatre when the show boat sails in. Costume design visually enhances the contrast between the entertainers and the cotton workers.
There are exceptional performances from the multi-talented cast. The women, in particular, shine. Sandra Marvin gives a spirited performance as Queenie, combining comic performance skills with a powerful voice, and Lucy Briers brings a bite of sharpness to the role of Parthy Ann Hawks which acts as a necessary corrective to the surrounding sweetness.
Gina Beck’s Magnolia is at the heart of the production and holds it together. The character develops convincingly from shy young girl to long suffering wife to successful artiste. She is vocally very accomplished and a pleasure to listen to, particularly effective in the ‘audition’ scene when a quiet, shy voice gradually reaches its most effective register.
An equally enjoyable performance from Rebecca Trehearn as Julie LaVerne, the supposedly mixed race singer whose downward trajectory complements Magnolia’s rise. I was extremely sorry when the vicissitudes of the plot removed her from view for most of the second half, though her moving interpretation of "Bill" almost compensated for that.
Alex Young and Danny Collins, the comedy duo Ellie May and Frank, are a consistent link through the action of the play. Collins’s elastic, rhythmic dancing is completely mesmerising and Young brings a necessary touch of sharpness to her characterisation of Ellie.
Emmanuel Kojo as Joe has the awesome task of delivering the show’s most famous and well known song. He may not have the vocal range of Paul Robeson but his voice has a beautiful tone and the sincerity of his performance adds an important dimension of sadness to a show full of cheerful vitality.
The ensemble of cotton workers sing with a fullness of tone which is particularly inspiring in the reprise of "Ol’ Man River", and their dancing is spirited and highly energetic.
This is essentially a feel good show for the Christmas season. The beauty of the music, the talent of cast, and relentless energy of the ensemble make this a very special and enjoyable experience.