How radical Show Boat must have seemed at its premiere in 1927! Even today the sheer breadth of its concerns and the ambition and range of its score makes Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern’s musical take the breath away.
In this impassioned, supple staging by Daniel Evans, arriving in the West End from the Sheffield Crucible, it feels as relevant and powerful as ever. You leave the theatre singing the unforgettable songs, but also moved by the story you have witnessed.
It’s a production that seems to me to get everything right. Lez Brotherston‘s set puts the theatrical show boat of the title, all high balconies and enticingly flashing lights, attractively centre stage. It gets a round of applause as it hoves into view – and it deserves it. But the setting also carries the action effortlessly to Chicago with the help of a flickering film and a balloon seller, and from there through the decades from 1887 to 1927 with a hugely effective slide show.
Evans' direction is similarly fleet. The show is performed in a fast-moving filleted version that dispenses with a lot of the early action around the story of the mixed race show singer Julie and her doomed marriage to Steve. Yet none of the serious themes – the oppression of the black workers, the betrayal of strong women by weak and wandering men, the sheer hardship of making ends meet in a hostile world – are lost.
Nor is the complexity; Magnolia (Gina Beck) is both redeemed and destroyed by her unconditional love for her gambler husband Gaylord (attractively played by Chris Peluso); Julie’s friendship towards her is both noble and destructive, that "Ol' Man River" is both inevitable and uncaring.
This is Show Boat‘s strength; as a show it moves from tragedy to high comedy in the blink of an eye, encompassing all of human life in its broad grasp. Yet sometimes, in performance, that can make the action disintegrate. Not here. The overall grip never slackens, with Alistair David‘s lively choreography, and Tom Brady‘s sumptuous music direction driving the pace.
But the intimate moments also count: you care about Magnolia and Gaylord, about bossy Ellie May and eager Frank, about the henpecked Captain Andy, who explains that he always responds to his wife’s call after 30 years of marriage because "she’s got a mean disposition." The scene where Joe tells Queenie that "Ah Still Suits Me" becomes a complete and loving domestic drama.
The performances are uniformly superb. Beck, with her soaring lyric soprano, grows beautifully from idealistic girl to dignified woman; Malcolm Sinclair brings real warmth to Captain Andy. Rebecca Trehearn breaks your heart as Julie, performing the glorious "Bill" as a woman in despair who still can’t quite resist a song taking flight. Danny Collins has terrific pizzazz as Frank.
Best of all are the two who keep the melancholy loveliness of the music rolling – Emmanuel Kojo as dignified Joe brings just the right bite of disgust to "Ol’ Man River", and when Sandra Marvin sings "Mis’ry’s Comin' Aroun'" she sends shivers down the spine. Glorious.
Show Boat is booking at the New London Theatre until 7 January 2017.