New London Theatre, London
Show Boat at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre was the best musical that I saw last year and its London transfer is setting a very high bar for 2016. Daniel Evans‘ production, mounted on Lez Brotherston‘s spectacularly evocative set doesn’t just reprise one of Broadway’s greatest ever musicals, it recreates America’s Southlands and Midwest at the turn of the 20th century, with a spine-tingling intensity.
Famed as the “original Broadway musical”, Show Boat is powered by a narrative that steams through human love and tragedy, fuelled by some of the finest songs written – and in this production, performed by arguably the most talented company in town. Chris Peluso and Gina Beck lead as Gaylord Ravenal and his wife Magnolia. Peluso, who takes over the role from Michael Xavier, offers his own distinctive interpretation of the riverboat-gambler whose heart is melted and enchants with a convincing passion both in solo and in his famous duets of Make Believe and You Are Love.
Beck continues to deliver a magnificent Magnolia with an arc, tragic yet strong, that breaks our hearts. As Magnolia matures from wide-eyed love-struck teenager into a challenging adult life, Beck is en pointe throughout. Truly one of the finest of her generation, the power of her soprano is spine-tingling. Her duets with Peluso may be charming, but in After The Ball, she takes the roof off.
Rebecca Trehearn‘s Julie offers a performance that is perfectly nuanced throughout. Her character hides a complex secret (no spoilers here) and on re-visiting Trehearn’s performance, the tiny details that betray Julie’s deepest fears are performed exquisitely. And of course she matches Beck’s vocal perfection. Can’t Help Loving That Man Of Mine evolves throughout the evening until it’s the song on everyone’s lips at the final curtain, whilst Bill, a beautiful lament Is one of the second half’s highlights.
The musical is famous for Ol’ Man River, a song that’s arguably bigger than the Mississippi it tells of. The ridiculously young and talented Emmanuel Kojo continues to kick the song out of the park. He gives it a beautifully bass foundation, yet also allows it to soar with a spirituality. The despair of the African American stevedores, so cleverly evinced in Kern’s classic chords and Hammerstein’s inspired lyrics is a thing of wondrous grief when sung by Kojo’s Joe. Sandra Marvin as Queenie brings a worldly wisdom to her modest role but, again with her gorgeous vocal range, she makes fine work of Mis’ry’s Comin’ Roun’ and the second half’s jolly Hey, Feller!
Alex Young’s rising star continues to shine. Her feisty Ellie Mae Shipley providing many of the show’s compassionately comic moments with Life Upon The Wicked Stage being delightfully executed. Opposite her, Danny Collins plays her stage husband Frank Schultz. Collins’ dance work is a marvel, his routine with Young during Goodbye My Lady Love being a blur of perfectly executed footwork. In fact Alistair David’s choreography is stunning throughout. The company numbers are breathtaking, either in their raw humanity during Ol’ Man River, or the simply stunning exuberance of Act One’s opening and closing routines.
Show Boat speaks with charm of a time gone by. Whilst its darker sides of racism and gambling/alcohol addiction are sadly timeless, so too is its observation of marriage. As the Ravenals’ union fails, both Joe and Queenie’s marriage along with that of Captain Andy Hawks and wife Parthy (again, excellent supporting work from Malcolm Sinclair and Lucy Briers) endure the decades. There’s a theme of recognizable hen-pecked husbandry that bridges the racial separation and while Parthy and Queenie’s domineering wives raise a warm chuckle in their disciplined approach to housekeeping, it all harks back to a golden and more gentle age of storytelling, when vaudeville, Broadway and Hollywood entertained the world. It’s a further credit to Evans, David and Brotherston that the whole production exudes such a filmic quality.
As Tom Brady’s orchestra provide the perfect backdrop to a night of laughter and tears, Show Boat defines flawless musical theatre.
Booking until 7th January 2017Photo credit: Johan Persson