One of the landmark musicals of the 20th century has steamed back into the West End in the shape of Daniel Evans's superb new production of Show Boat, which has transferred from the Sheffield Crucible to the New London Theatre.
The story, which is set in the 1880s through the 1920s, deals primarily with the fortunes of an impressionable young woman named Magnolia Hawks, her father who owns a showboat named the Cotton Blossom and a troubled riverboat gambler/actor named Gaylord Ravenal. Magnolia and Gaylord fall in love while acting in the showboat and eventually marry and move to Chicago. They separate, however, after Gaylord loses all their money gambling.
A true legacy musical, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's 1927 work is based on Edna Ferber's best-selling novel and still feels as relevant and powerful today as it did back then. The beauty of the show is its characters change significantly from beginning to end, experiencing the highs and lows of a life lived over four decades. This includes World War 1, the beginning of the women's civil rights movement, the dawn of the Klu Klux Klan, racial prejudice and much more. Indeed, it provides a vibrant snapshot of an America coming to terms with modernity.
From the moment, we hear the musically stirring opening of that emotionally charged song that is synonymous with the show, namely Ol' Man River we know we're in for a treat. Apart from the aforementioned, the most enduring songs in the Kern/Hammerstein score those that explore love's first stirrings in Make Believe, love's tyranny in Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man, love's exquisite bliss in You Are Love, and of course, love gone wrong in the memorable number called simply Bill.
The show features dynamic sets by Lez Brotherston – the main focus of the narrative the Cotton Blossom, with its mixed-race cast and crew, is realised in opulent detail as a triple decked vessel festooned with bunting, lighting and, on arrival, shimmering chorus girls – as well as exuberant choreography by Alistair David.
But, apart from the glorious, unforgettable musical score, it is the performances that really bring the show so vividly to life. Gina Beck is perfect as the sweet innocent captain's daughter Magnolia, while Chris Peluso fully convinces as the charming but ill-suited wastrel Gaylord, whom she falls for, and honey-voiced Rebecca Trehearn impresses as Magnolia's mixed race friend Julie, who has a terrible secret of her own and whose life spirals into the gutter after she is banned from the show. Malcolm Sinclair makes a sympathetic Captain Andy Hawks and Lucy Briers makes her mark as his sharp-tongued wife Parthy Ann Hawks. There is also a terrific performance by Emmanuel Kojo as Joe. He gives a powerful rendition of the most famous song Ol' Man River, in which the sense of yearning for a better life and despair at the servitude forced on the black stevedores working on the Mississippi cotton-hauling vessel pours from every line and becomes an inspiring affirmation of positive defiance.
This is certainly a boat you cannot afford to miss.
Runs at the New London Theatre until Saturday 7 January 2017.Last modified: April 6, 2021