If ever proof were needed that some of the best theatre comes from outside London, Daniel Evans’ production of Show Boat now showing at the New London Theatre is it. There’s been great excitement about this West End revival, following the show’s five-star run at the Sheffield Crucible last year. Boasting a stellar cast and a fabulous score, the show is a feel-good spectacular, a classic musical that will make you laugh, cry and seriously consider getting up and joining in.
Show Boat itself is a history maker, often credited with changing musical theatre forever upon its Broadway premiere in 1927. Based on a novel by Edna Ferber and written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, it broke with the tradition of light and fluffy musical comedies, and blended spectacle and entertainment with weightier themes like racism, addiction and the superficial nature of showbusiness.
The Cotton Blossom, a show boat on the Mississippi at the turn of the 20th century, is owned by the genial Captain Andy Hawks and his (not quite so genial) wife, Parthy. As the boat makes its way up the river, we meet the Cotton Blossom’s other residents and hear their stories of love, ambition, disappointment, prejudice and betrayal. The years pass (increasingly rapidly, particularly in Act 2); secrets are revealed, promises broken and lives destroyed. And yet somehow, incredibly, it all comes out right in the end, and the show concludes on a glorious high note.
It might not always be totally believable, but Show Boat is still an exhilarating ride. Its cast, most of whom starred in the original Sheffield production, are flawless, and there are too many fantastic performances to mention, so here are a few highlights: Gina Beck showcases an incredible vocal and emotional range as Magnolia, the innocent teenager who grows into a strong independent woman. Rebecca Trehearn, who plays leading lady Julie La Verne, has a voice to die for, while Malcolm Sinclair and Lucy Briers are a joy to watch as bickering couple Andy and Parthy. And one of the show’s stand-out moments comes from Emmanuel Kojo as Joe - his performance of Ol’ Man River is as haunting as it is beautifully sung, a powerful lament about the merciless indifference of time.
Lez Brotherson’s set is another triumph; the Cotton Blossom is all ladders and decks, allowing the story to unfold on several levels at once, and still allowing room for some spectacular group dance numbers from choreographer Alistair David. In fact the production makes use of the entire space at the New London Theatre, ensuring that the audience is always at the heart of the action.
Show Boat deals with some difficult themes, but does so with a smile on its face and a spring in its step that mean we still leave the theatre feeling uplifted. While the story itself suffers slightly from the characters’ seemingly limitless capacity to forgive each other anything, but this production is so irresistible that we find ourselves in a similar position - willing to overlook any flaws in the plot and simply sit back to enjoy the spectacle.
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