The Royal Albert Hall’s first fully-staged musical Show Boat set sail on Tuesday (13 June 2006, following previews from 10 June). Based on the novel by Edna Ferber, the story follows the lives and loves of a song and dance troupe. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical broke new ground when it premiered on Broadway in 1927, dealing with racial prejudice, poverty and abandonment.

Francesca Zambello’s in-the-round production is designed by Peter J Davison with costumes by Sue Willmington, lighting by Andrew Bridge, sound by Bobby Aitken, choreography by Arthur Pita and musical direction by David Charles Abell. It’s presented by Raymond Gubbay, co-producing with the Royal Albert Hall. Elena Shaddow, Rebecca Thornhill, John Owen-Jones, Jenny Galloway, Mark Coles, Angela Renee Simpson and David Burt star. The production runs for 18 performances only to 25 June 2006.

First night critics enjoyed the spectacle of the production, and some were impressed with the performances of the international cast of stage stars. However, others thought it was all show and no substance and that, while the memorable score has some beautiful songs, the story now seems slow and dated.

  • Michael Coveney on - “The astonishing size and spectacle of Show Boat, arguably the first great modern musical, could never have been more excitingly realised than it is in Francesca Zambello’s production at the Royal Albert Hall… The story, based on Edna Ferber’s novel, is splendidly well told, the underscoring endlessly atmospheric, the characters starkly delineated, and the climaxes tremendous… To hear Magnolia and Ravenal lyrically declaim that ‘You Are Love’ – and this is, for me, the bewitching high spot of the Albert Hall show - is to experience one of the peaks of musical theatre achievement… Show Boat - as is triumphantly revealed once again - is simply a masterpiece.”

  • Sam Marlowe in The Times - “The work was credited with inventing a whole new dramatic form, daring to address social issues such as racism, and its panoramic narrative remains awesomely ambitious… In modern performance, however… black characters seem clichéd, its sprawling plot lacks dramatic climaxes and its pat happy ending feels unsatisfactory… much of the show drags, and the poor, echoey acoustic doesn’t help.” But, Marlowe conceded, “a hard-working cast achieve some memorable moments.” She particularly praised Elena Shaddow’s Magnolia: “with a light, pure voice superbly suited to the music’s more operetta-like moments, she reprises ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man’ to heartbreaking effect, and suggests a relationship with John Owen-Jones’ smoothie gambler Gaylord that develops from wide-eyed fascination to true passion. If this Show Boat has sprung a few leaks, it’s the performances that keep it afloat.”

  • Lyn Gardner in the Guardian - “Show Boat should be a good choice. It's a big show with big themes that requires big thinking, and Jerome Kern's score has a strong claim to being one of the greatest pieces of musical theatre ever written. But Francesca Zambello's in-the-round staging… is not so much Show Boat as a very slow boat. I'm astonished that opera works in this space, because a musical doesn't stand a chance. Zambello makes the mistake of simply trying to fill up the space… the more she piles on the spectacle the more sketchy the production becomes… Like water, the show slips through your fingers.” However, Gardner wrote, “even a less than adequate production can't hide the sheer brilliance of Kern's score… Angela Renee Simpson as Queenie, Mark Coles as Joe and Rebecca Thornhill as Julie, the young mulatto woman destroyed by racism, act as if they're in far classier company.”

  • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard - “If you like your boats showy, here is the place to drop anchor over the next 11 days. This spectacular in-the-round production is not, it can safely be said, your average evening of musical theatre. For a start, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra provides the accompaniment… The first few minutes are a baffling kaleidoscope, as actors keep baling cotton and rhubarbing and pulling each other's focus like there's no business like show business… it is soon apparent that, despite the wisdom-of-the-ages black characters… this is all about dat no-good white man, whom dat loyal white woman just can't help loving. Echoing amplification is a big problem; director Francesca Zambello would have done better to concentrate on this rather than her cast's intricate entrances and exits. As it is, the packaging triumphs over the gift, for the leads, when finally left alone in the huge expanse to express some sentiment, sound strangely empty. With songs this indestructible, though, there is always hope on the Boat's horizon. Emma Dodd's Ellie has particular fun with ‘Life upon the Wicked Stage’, a paean to the vagaries of acting. Her 70 co-stars must sympathise with the sentiments.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell