Oh, how Sheffield Theatres will miss Daniel Evans. The outgoing artistic director, recently announced as the new head of Chichester Festival Theatre, has an assured reputation for copper-bottomed productions of classic musicals. But this revival of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s lesser performed 1927 work is, even by his standards, something special.
It was a radical piece for its time. Based on Edna Ferber’s novel about the tumultuous lives of a group of performers aboard the Mississippi show boat Cotton Blossom, it combines a panoramic snapshot of a changing America with detailed close-ups of personal hardship.
Spanning several decades from the late 1800s, it tackles racism, alcoholism, women’s rights, gambling and the dawn of modernity. These were rare subjects back then for musical theatre, and in that great American musical tradition, Show Boat effortlessly views them through the telescoping lens of show business itself.
Kern’s score is sublime, a groundbreaking mix of high opera and popular show tunes. Under the direction here of musical supervisor David White, every sound is lush, sonorous and extravagantly beautiful. Indeed, Show Boat is waterlogged with feeling.
Lez Brotherston’s set, which combines wooden board walks with the light-bedecked bow of the Cotton Blossom, provides a clean backdrop to some richly explored performances. Racial tension simmers everywhere, from the bitter chorus of opening song, Cotton Blossom – “coloured folks work while white folks play” – to use of the N-word by a belligerent white man as he manhandles the sweating black stevedores. Most powerfully of all, Emmanuel Kojo’s Joe, one of the black shiphands, lends Show Boat’s most famous song, Ol’ Man River, a magnificent note of plangent fatalism. It is a note that, through the song’s repeated refrain, throbs throughout the show like a sorrowful heartbeat.
The singing is exquisite. Rebecca Trehearn’s Julie, forced to end her career on the Cotton Blossom when it’s revealed that she is half negro and thus guilty of inter racial marriage, lends a gorgeously deep, oaky quality to the musical’s second big musical moment, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.
Gina Beck’s Magnolia, who marries Michael Xavier’s dashing but tormented Gaylord only to be abandoned by him years later in Chicago because of his gambling debts, and who transforms from pink cheeked innocent to powerfully assured grown woman, brings the house down with After The Ball. Sandra Marvin’s Queenie, meanwhile, sings Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’ as though she possesses a sadness as old and deep as the river itself. Hammerstein’s songs are mainly concerned with the subject of love but almost every note here articulates a deeper emotional subtext of regret and yearning, and as the show progresses, a terrible awareness of time passing.
There’s some terrific character work from Allan Corduner as Captain Hawks who affectionately squabbles with his hatchet-faced wife Parthy, while Danny Collins and Alex Young inject plenty of wit as a couple of ghastly show biz wannabes.
Alistair David’s slick choreography is beautifully deployed, too, no less so than during a racially charged dance “stand off” aboard the Cotton Blossom. Evans marshals what can become a rather choppy plot with fast, dream -like fluidity, ripping through the passing years in the second half with evocative use of projected newspaper headlines and finding in the show’s final scenes a heart-aching note of redemption.
This is a terrific production, full of seamlessly integrated colour and detail. It is the kind of show that leaves you feeling choked, shivery and on an absolute high.
Author: Claire Allfree
“Performances of exceptional quality”
The star of Show Boat is, surely, the Mississippi river, its rolling presence famously extolled in one of the 1927 musical’s hit numbers: Ol’ Man River. Written for Paul Robeson and sung by him in the 1936 film, it has been identified with that great American ever since. Here, Emmanuel Kojo makes the song his own. In a direct and tightly focused performance of seeming ease, he channels a voice of rib-vibrating depth and silk-smooth roundness to feel as unforcedly natural as slow water surging powerfully towards the ocean.
Jerome Kern (musically directed by David White) weaves theme tunes through his score like a current, carrying the fortunes of the Show Boat people through Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri, all the way to Chicago and back, over four decades from the mid-1880s. Sometimes Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyrics surface; sometimes instrumental only, they sound in the audiences’ imaginations.
Director Daniel Evans builds on this impression of currents flowing. He swirls his cast around the wharf planks separating thrust stage from auditorium, he eddies them up and down the iron stairs from the light-bedecked boat’s bridge, to deck, to backstage or galley – Lez Brotherston’s layered set making all things possible and Alistair David’s choreography taking full advantage. Often, one character stands still on the edge of the surge, watching – the fixed point that gives the movement force.
The effect is to emphasise the sense that the particulars of this very American story are universal – tales of love and loss; of friendship and oppression. Performances of exceptional quality, each one true to the self that it must be, underscore a theme within Edna Ferber’s novel (the musical’s source): people are equal; their circumstances are not.
Equal as are all in the 24-strong ensemble, space constraints mean I can single out but a few. Among the lovers: Michael Xavier’s Gaylord, so dashing, so chastened, perfectly counterbalanced by Gina Beck’s strong, true-loving Magnolia; Kojo’s unapologetic Joe laughed at and railed at by Sandra Marvin’s self-strong Queenie; Rebecca Trehearn as Julie, simultaneously broken and sustained by love.
Author: Clare Brennan
“Brilliant boat of musical delights”
It’s always a pleasure to welcome a classy production of a classic musical to the West End and director Daniel Evans has constructed just that in this triumphant transfer from the Sheffield Crucible. From the musically stirring, verbally unsettling opening lines of Ol’ Man River that begin the show — “Coloured folks work on the Mississippi… while the white folks play” — delivered by the magnificently voiced Emmanuel Kojo as Joe, we know we’re in for something special. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s 1927 work set the template for the musical as we know it, and 90 years on it’s still a knockout, above all for its soaring songs.
The Cotton Blossom is the titular steamer, plying the rivers of the Deep South with nightly entertainments and daily romantic upheavals of the mixed-race cast and crew. The centre of all this is captain’s daughter Magnolia (Gina Beck, lovely), who falls for handsome wastrel Gaylord Ravenal (Chris Peluso). The years roll on, the second half gets rather centrifugal and heartbreak ensues.
But those songs! Every number is a delight and the spirited ensemble brings each one to rousing life. The plangent refrains of Ol’ Man River and more upbeat philosophy of Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man thread their silky way through the show and Dan Delange’s orchestrations ply us with constant tempting samples of every number. Don’t miss this Boat.
Author: Fiona Mountford
“Just what the doctor ordered”
At the beginning of this joyous revival of the 1927 Kern and Hammerstein musical, the entire ensemble fills the stage. Then, subtly, they shift until they have separated into two groups — black and white. This small touch is typical of Daniel Evans’ deft staging: it quietly foregrounds the fact that here is a mixed company working together to tell a story of segregation and separation. And this Sheffield Theatres production is masterly. It celebrates the period feel of this, one of the oldest musicals, while emphasising its daring in tackling racial prejudice; it revels in its exuberance, while also drawing out its sombre undertones. A simple trick of David Hersey’s lighting suggests the shimmering Mississippi river, where much of the action is set. It’s here that black stevedores load bales of cotton and that the showboat Cotton Blossom — a water-borne theatre — glides in to dock. Lez Brotherston’s design makes Cotton Blossom a giddy, gaudy three-tiered confection of glittering lights and patriotic flags, on which Captain Andy’s company sing in glorious harmony as they promote their show to the locals. But once the lights go down, you see how rickety the boat is, in keeping with a story that explores addiction, poverty and racial tensions, and that follows its characters over four decades to chart the damage wrought by life. It’s not easy to balance the scope of the show — which roves from Mississippi to Chicago — with making individual stories ring true. But here the central love story, between Captain Andy’s daughter Magnolia (Gina Beck) and charming drifter Gaylord Ravenal (Chris Peluso), is tenderly told. Beck’s performance is beautifully pitched: sweet but not saccharine, her headstrong determination to marry her man is the source of her resilience when his gambling starts to bite. Rebecca Trehearn brings real poignancy to Julie, Cotton Blossom’s mixed-race leading lady, who becomes a damaged, alcoholic chanteuse. There’s lovely, snappy detail from Danny Collins and Alex Young as comic performers who long to be taken seriously, and both pain and warmth from Sandra Marvin as the cook, Queenie. But this is, above all, an ensemble staging and it comes into its own with the show’s two most famous numbers — an exuberantly choreographed (Alistair David) delivery of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and a hauntingly moving version of “Ol’ Man River”. Emmanuel Kojo, leading the latter, begins barely audibly, before building to a spine-tingling climax. Magnificent.
Author: Sarah Hemming
“Sensational. Glorious. A Triumph”
The 1927 Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein musical, Show Boat, is returning to London after a 20-year hiatus, via a brief spell at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre.
Passions run high on board the showboat Cotton Blossom, which is steaming down the Mississippi in 1887 during the early days of racial segregation when Julie, its troupe’s leading lady, is revealed to be of mixed race. As the marriage is illegal, she and her husband Steve, the leading man, no longer feel safe and are compelled to leave. As a result, in steps Gaylord, a handsome gambler with a dangerous past, and Magnolia, whose father Captain Andy owns the boat. Gaylord wins the heart of Magnolia and marries her against the wishes of Magnolia's mother.
The two couples cross paths six years later in Chicago when Gaylord becomes bankrupt due to gambling and abandons Magnolia and their daughter Kim in shame. Magnolia once again steps into Julie's shoes, eventually becoming a big star.
However, Gaylord and Magnolia’s love is as constant as the river itself. Twenty years after the story begins, and after great social upheaval in America, the couple are reunited, back on the showboat.
“I feel privileged to be co-producing the fresh and innovative revival of this seminal musical,’’ says Mr Wang. ‘’The raw energy of the score and choreography is utterly intoxicating.
"This truly is an exceptional production of a very special musical – where themes of racial prejudice, enduring love, family and freedom are as relevant today as they were in 1927.”