A contrived plot. A couple of good musical numbers. A brief toe-dipping into the theme of the black struggle. Just what is so impressive or indeed relevant about this play? Granted, London is currently being spoilt with two other dazzling and very different American musicals - Chicago and Rent. How those productions show up the weaknesses in Show Boat.
Where Chicago goes minimalist in terms of scenery, Show Boat goes off the other end of the scale. You get everything but the Mississippi River itself. Sets rise and fall and rearrange for just about every scene and these are no mere suggestions of environment; you get such wholly imagined rooms you could live in them.
Much of the scenery is brilliantly clever, but it is eclipsed by the lighting. Especially when it comes to the scenes involving the boat itself, Lighting designer Richard Pilbrow works sheer magic. His evocation of water is stunning and the night sky he creates for romance on the upper deck of the Cotton Blossom is perfection.
Unfortunately, such clever artistry is not matched in Show Boat's score which boasts just two reasonable numbers - 'Ol' Man River' and 'Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man'. And, in this production, you most definitely can have too much of a good thing. We get several too many helpings of the rather antiquated 'Can't Help Lovin''. Meanwhile, Joe (the unbelievably deep-voiced Michel Bell) wanders through the action, launching into 'Ol' Man River' whenever he can, to increasingly comic effect; the supreme pathos of the song never matched by the action on-stage.
Contrived is really an understatement in terms of the plot. The story of Julie (Terry Burrell) - a black woman trying to pass herself off as white - raises interesting questions about the black struggle, but it is all too quickly pushed aside for the more conventional romance of Ravenal (Hugh Panaro) and Magnolia (Teri Hansen). Things improve as fate turns on the happy couple in Act Two but, even in bum times, there's nothing epic about their story. Certainly, it is too weak a construct to span forty stage years and, more importantly, three stall hours.
Above all, what we're dealing with here is a piece that has dated badly. Maybe it still has some magic tucked away inside it, but this production fails to root it out. Neither the dazzling sets and lighting, nor the constant musical refrains, can make up for the unevenness of the story.
Let's hope that Show Boat sails out of the West End soon to make room for something a little more incisive.
Another reviewer offers less damning misgivings...
Director Harold Prince writes in the programme notes, that this production of Show Boat is culled from the original 1927 production, the subsequent London script, the 1946 Broadway revival and the 1936 film, and using material cut from previous productions. Three hours, 22 scene changes, and six reprises of 'Ol' Man River' later, I wondered if this was all necessary. Surely material is cut in the first place, for a reason.
This aside, the production comes to the London stage with 26 major US awards and a record breaking Broadway run and North American tour under its belt. For the London premiere, producer Garth Drabinsky has brought over 57 of the original Broadway cast, to fill roles that frankly, could be very easily cast to UK performers. However, those of the cast that don't fail to make an impression included Terry Burrell as Julie, with the memorable number 'Can't Help Lovin' That Man Of Mine', Joel Blum as Frank and Michel Bell doing serious justice to the Paul Robeson role of Joe.
Eugene Lee's production design calls for 500 costumes, 500 props, 60 technicians a moving Cotton Blossom (the infamous Show boat) docking before our very eyes. The sets are ingenious, although looked a little cluttered at times on the Prince Edward stage, rather small in comparison. This is also Susan Stroman's first return to the West End stage since the wonderful Gershwin success Crazy for You. Her choreography particularly shines through in the third and final era that the show takes us through: the 1920's, especially in the number 'Kim's Charleston'.
While not awe-inspiring, Show Boat is a pleasant evening's entertainment. The show is to run at the Prince Edward Theatre for three months, before making way for another Broadway success, Ragtime. It is unclear however, whether the production will transfer to another London theatre or not.