Show Boat

Music by Jerome Kern, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the novel Show Boat by Edna Ferber
Sheffield Theatres
New London Theatre

Joe and the Stevedores Credit: Johan Persson
The Show Boat Cast Credit: Johan Persson
Rebecca Trehearn as Julie La Verne Credit: Johan Persson

Show Boat is feted as the first modern musical, developing from diffuse vaudeville entertainments by linking the song and dance with a plot.

Almost 90 years later, having wowed audiences in Sheffield, Daniel Evans brings his revival to the New London to try its luck with West End musical devotees. His version allows the show to hint at its vaudeville antecedents, with performers showcased and some sparkling choreography courtesy of Alistair David.

The theatre's thrust stage suits a tale largely set on the titular paddle boat, plying its trade on the Mississippi starting out in 1887, and designer Lez Brotherston makes the most of it.

Malcolm Sinclair runs Captain Andy's Cotton Blossom as a travelling theatre. While the ups and downs of trade can be challenging, they barely register when compared with Andy's attempts to pacify his sour-faced wife Parthy, played with dedicated grimness by Lucy Briers.

They are the first of many couples who populate a melodrama that eventually covers 40 years, ending in the jazz age in the year when the musical premièred on Broadway.

In the early years, race was a big issue in the Deep South, especially if you were black like Emmanuel Kojo's Joe, who gets to sing “Old Man River” with a bass so deep that it must be sourced somewhere near his bootlaces, and Sandra Marvin as Queenie who keeps the evening running with a series of tunes, particularly one of the other stand-out numbers, the haunting and constantly recurring “Can’t Help Loving ‘Dat Man”.

Amongst the show folk, the leading lights are Gina Beck's Magnolia or Noli, her good-natured father (Andy's) daughter in every way. Her burden is Gaylord, a handsome waster played by Chris Peluso whose passion for the little lady struggles to overcome the competing attractions of booze and gambling.

As the relationship starts, they do at least get the lovely duet “You Are Love” but love quickly sours, not even saved by the arrival of little Kim.

To lighten the evening, the comic duo of Schultz and Schultz, respectively played by Alex Young and Danny Collins, the former a witty actress the latter a phenomenal dancer, bring a smile to the eye.

Passions often run high and fortunes rise and fall in the blink of an eye for most of the central characters, while this is personified in the troubles faced by Rebecca Trehearn as Julie, who sings like a dream, particularly on her late return with “Bill” after losing her job thanks to accusations of miscegenation, a bold concept for the musical stage to take on in the 1920s.

Show Boat is a classic and fans of the traditional musical will undoubtedly have a great time wallowing in nostalgia if they trip along to the New London to enjoy Daniel Evans's sumptuous revival.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

Are you sure?