After sailing on the wave of triumphant reviews, Sheffield Crucible Theatre’s sparkling new production of Show Boat finally anchors itself in the West End.
Show Boat’s story spans over forty years. Beginning in 1887, the Cotton Blossom is a show boat owned by Captain Andy Hawks, that offers entertainment at all it’s stops along the Mississippi River. Julie La Verne and her husband Steve are the stars of the show, however after La Verne spurns the advances of an unwanted admirer he reports her to the authorities because she is half African-American and her spouse is white. In the Deep South interracial marriages are forbidden and she is forced to leave the show with her husband. The captain’s daughter Magnolia who knows every move in the production successfully takes over from La Verne as an emergency replacement, and eventually becomes the show boat’s new leading lady. She falls for gambling addict Gaylord Ravenal and despite the disapproval of her mother Parthy Hawks, they marry and leave the boat. Magnolia quickly learns as they flee unpaid debts where ever they try to set up a new home, that she will always come second best to her husband’s gambling. Then after the birth of their child Kim, Gaylord leaves her broke in Chicago after frittering away all their savings, and she is forced to fend for herself and the infant. By chance Frank and Ellie, two former performers from the showboat, learn that Magnolia is living in the rooms they want to hire and suggest she tries out for a musical spot at the Trocadero, the club where they are doing a 1900 New Year’s Eve show. Julie La Verne is also working there but has become an alcoholic because her husband has left her. She hears Magnolia singing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” for her audition, a song which La Verne taught her years ago, and La Verne secretly quits her job so that Magnolia can fill it. After a rocky start Magnolia regains her confidence and become a big musical star. The story comes full circle in 1927, when she retires and returns to her original home the Cotton Blossom show boat to live with her elderly parents.
Show Boat is based on Edna Ferber’s bestselling 1926 novel of the same name. Ferber was not afraid to tackle gritty social issues, and her work often covered many ground breaking themes including racial and class-divisions, poverty and the position of women in society. Composer Jerome Kern and lyricist and book writer Oscar Hammerstein II, approached Ferber in 1927 because they wanted to break away from the historically vacuous traditions of musical theatre, and to present songs that pushed the action forward instead of just ornamenting it. Show Boat is often considered to be the birth of the modern musical because it was the first show to integrate story and score. With a key plot point revolving around the illegality of a mixed-race marriage, and central lyrics like “Coloured folks work on de Mississippi, coloured folks work while de white folks play,” the piece challenged it’s comtemporary audiences like never before, and created a radical new template for musicals.
The Sheffield Crucible used a new version of the musical developed by Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House which has nipped and tucked the lengthier parts of the script for modern audiences. This adaptation aims to defy the age of the piece (now 90), by giving it a timeless feel that focuses on the universality of love, oppression and social division. It zooms in on the intimacies of it’s characters while at the same time showcasing the story’s epic scale. This fits in with it’s original creators Kern and Hammerstein, who understood that for the piece to survive it had to adapt to changing audiences, and they often did rewrites themselves where necessary.
The casting for this show is a perfect as it gets. All have stunning voices and they give it they’ve got. Emmanuel Kojo’s lush deep vocals when singing Ol’ Man River as Joe sends shivers down the spine, and he also displays comedy skills in the duet I Still Suits Me, with the exuberant Sandra Marvin as his nagging wife Queenie. Soprano Gina Beck gives convincing layers to the difficult journey of her character Magnolia, who is both destroyed and redeemed by her unconditional love for Ravenel. Gambling obsessed Ravenel is played beautifully by the velvet voiced Chris Peluso. Director Daniel Evans ensures the momentum never stops and is complimented by Alistair David’s dazzling choreography. Lez Brotherston’s boat is like a glittering three-tiered wedding cake and deservedly gets a round of applause when it advances towards the audience. Tom Brady’s musical direction does full justice to Jerome Kern’s exquisite score which is a mix of popular show tunes and high opera.
This is a sublime revival of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1927 classic masterpiece. Grab a ticket while you can.