Show Boat was not the first musical ever made, but it was definitely the first to introduce the form and structure of what we now know as the musical. Based on Edna Ferber’s hit novel, Jerome Kern’s and Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical is a multi-generational story about love, theatre and passion, while also exploring the darker themes of alcoholism, gambling and racism. Today, under the hand of director Daniel Evans, the Broadway classic is far from out-dated; it is an upbeat, powerful production that is ready to touch and move its modern audience.
Captain Andy Hawks’s showboat The Cotton Blossom is an exciting and yet not overwhelming set piece full of lights and glamour – this is where Magnolia and Gaylord fall in love and start their lives together as a married couple. But Show Boat isn’t a simple love story: after moving to Chicago with their daughter, the couple face numerous hardships as Gaylord sinks deeper into gambling and alcoholism. The musical also features the not-so-subtle taboo of mixed-race relations: Julie La Verne, the star of The Cotton Blossom has to leave the showboat with her husband because she is a mixed race woman married to a white man. The theme comes to a truly cathartic point when both the workers of colour and the white performers on the showboat find themselves dancing together, initially frightened and eventually liberated and ecstatic. It is uplifting and terrifying at the same time; it is difficult to believe that this was all very real only a few decades ago.
The production stars an energetic cast with some outstanding performances: the duo of Lucy Briers and Malcolm Sinclair playing Mr and Mrs Hawks are brilliantly heart-warming; Gina Beck brings countless layers and colours to Magnolia as she embodies her through the different stages of her life; Rebecca Trehearn is captivatingly tragic as Julie La Verne; Alex Young’s performance of Ellie May Chipley is clever, humorous and energetically unstoppable; and Sandra Marvin’s Queenie displays confidence and tenderness at the same time. The songs are all capable of bringing the house down: numbers such as ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’, ‘Ol’ Man River’ and Trehearn’s ‘Bill’ will stay with you long after you leave the theatre.
Alistair David’s choreography is stunning, especially in the scene where the passing of time is visualised by the impressive display of different dances by the production’s strong ensemble, and in Frank and Ellie’s duo performance, in which Danny Collins showcases his talent as a dancer exceptionally well. With no weak links in the cast, a surprisingly layered story and tunes you can hum on the tube on your way home, Evans’s production is entertaining and throught-provoking even to those who might not love musicals.
Show Boat is old-school fun with shocking relevance; after nearly 90 years, the battle for equality and freedom expressed in this musical still rings true today.
Show Boat is playing at the New London Theatre until 7 January 2017. For more information and tickets, see the Show Boat website. Photo: Johan Persson