Sheffield Crucible – until 23 January 2016
2015 you sly old fox, you’ve saved the best for last.
The Confederate flag flutters over the stage as the opening bars of Show Boat play out. An ugly image, the flag defining so much of America’s troubled history and setting a dark uncompromising tone that defines Daniel Evan’s production.
This 1927 Broadway classic isn’t a single-star led show such as Gypsy or Funny Girl, rather it is a company driven production that tells an interwoven story of love, despair and racial tension set, for the most part, aboard the Cotton Blossom steamboat as it plys the towns along the vast Mississippi.
Sheffield maybe famous for its steel, but Evans casts this show in platinum. Gina Beck and Michael Xavier take the leading roles of the ill-fated Magnolia Hawks and Gaylord Ravenal, with Xavier’s Ravenal exuding a raffish charm as the river gambler with a murky past and whose quest for love is gorgeously defined in Where’s The Mate For Me. Xavier’s presence captures the romantic irresistibility of the man – with a chemistry ignited between him and Beck that offers a rarely witnessed on-stage magic.
And as for Gina Beck… This diminutive soprano who has led shows both in the West End and across the USA possesses a voice of quite simply ethereal power. One of Show Boat’s captivating charms is that aside from being a gripping yarn, its song-list feels like a whirl through the American Songbook. Beck’s take on Only Make Believe and You Are Love, both gorgeously duetted with Xavier are enchanting – whilst her act 2 After The Ball is ravishingly rousing. The love between Magnolia and Gaylord is pure, challenging and ultimately heartbreakingly uplifting and in her character’s arc, from young girl to mother, Beck’s performance is flawless.
Emmanuel Kojo is probably a new name to most. This young talented actor with a remarkable bass range takes Ol’ Man River – one of the biggest songs ever written – and crafts it into an unforgettable performance of utter beauty. Half way into the first act and the audience are in tears. Kojo, who debuted last year in The Scottsboro Boys, is no stranger to suffering the Deep South’s cruelty on stage. He imbues the number with an understated pain and a vocal majesty that matches the river’s underlying power, in one broad sweep capturing the humiliating misery of back-breaking work “while the white folk play”. Kojo is complemented by Sandra Marvin’s Queenie. Marvin wows in everything she sings, with a presence and resonance that command our attention.
Also aboard Evan’s steamboat is Rebecca Trehearn as Julie. Trehearn, who stunned last year in City of Angels (a show that also included Marvin) does it again here, with an amazing spin on Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man. She both thrills and fills the Crucible with the song, breaking our hearts in the second half as she stumbles across Magnolia reprising the number.
And still this show is crammed with gems. Alex Young and Danny Collins are a triple-threat treasure, offering moments of sublimely choreographed comedy as Ellie and Frank Schultz – with Young’s Life Upon the Wicked Stage a particularly delicious entertainment. Allan Corduner is the Cotton Blossom’s wise, weary and witty Captain Andy. Together with Lucy Briers as his wife Parthy and who has the roguish measure of Ravenal the moment she sees him, this pair capture the essence of a long lived love.
It’s not just the sensational work that Evans coaxes from his company, aided and abetted by Alistair David’s inspired choreography. Lez Brotherston’s stunning set, all weathered timbers and a fabulously marquee-lit steamboat (even if the paddles should have been set at the vessel’s stern!) create a carefully crafted illusion of early 20th century America. That the show is lit by the masterful David Hersey only seals its fidelity.
With the combination of Show Boat’s timeless score (bravo to David White’s band) and ingenious staging, it feels as though Evans has created a Hollywood original, as much as re-imagining a Broadway classic. Get to Sheffield before this Show Boat slips its moorings. It’s unmissable.
Runs until 23rd January 2016Photo credit: Johan Persson