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 entire venue is occupied by the Cotton Blossom show boat, whose upper tiers are suspended from the roof. The full complement of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by David Charles Abell, is easily contained, apparently, on the ship’s bows.
This production of the sprawling, magnificent epic of life on the Mississippi from the 1880s to 1927 (the year of the musical’s premiere) is based on the Hal Prince version of 1994, with the orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett and William David Brohn.
This is likely to remain the standard version, though personally I miss the inclusion of “Nobody Else But Me” (the last song Jerome Kern wrote) in the last scene. But in all other respects, the story, based on Edna Ferber’s novel, is splendidly well told, the underscoring endlessly atmospheric, the characters starkly delineated, and the climaxes tremendous.
Famously, the book and lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II introduced “tough” subjects such as gambling, alcoholism, mixed-race relationships and the grinding labour of black stevedores (“Ol’ Man River”) to a musical theatre weighed down with frippery. But, as always, it's the romance and the soaring beauty of the songs, the jagged syncopations of the cakewalk and the sheer theatrical and emotional splendour that carries the show.
That splendour has been skilfully realised in Peter J Davison’s design, the costumes of Sue Willmington, the choreography of Arthur Pita and the sound design – how hard a job must that be in this arena? – of Bobby Aitken, all held together in Zambello’s operatic staging.
It's as though we sit back to view the wider picture then lean forwards to witness the falling in love of Magnolia Hawkes (Elena Shaddow) and Gaylord Ravenal (John Owen-Jones); or the tragedy of Julie Laverne (Rebecca Thornhill) confessing an erotic obsession in “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” or celebrating her hopeless lover in “Bill” (lyrics are by P G Wodehouse); or the bustling performances of David Burt as Captain Andy Hawkes and Jenny Galloway as Parthy Ann.
Above all, this is a show of the blues and the backstage life, not necessarily the same thing. The hero is the perennial outsider, the victim of racism, the besotted gambler, the dyed-in-the-wool villain, the unfortunate lover. The size of the musical allows for the great time lags and reversals of fortune that characterise the score, which has a sense of foreboding, mystery and deep, abiding poignancy.
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. And “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” and the hectic ensemble reprise of “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” are the rhythmic mantras of a theatre experience that decimates all those pointless arguments about the distinctions between popular musical theatre and operatic seriousness.
Show Boat - as is triumphantly revealed once again - is simply a masterpiece.