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Show Boat (Sheffield Crucible)

Daniel Evans directs a superb revival of the American musical

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Daniel Evans takes to the water once more over the Christmas period, following his hit production of Anything Goes last year. Set on and around a theatre on a Mississippi river barge, Show Boat is a production with such flair and heart it will likely make you want to jump on board and set sail.

On the boat of Captain Andy Hawks there are white performers and black workers who, during a time of legislated segregation in southern America, get along just fine. Magnolia, the daughter of the captain, gets her chance to be leading lady after her best friend – exposed as a mixed-race performer – is forced to leave the ship. When Magnolia's new beau, the impressively named Gaylord Ravenal, steps up to take the leading man role, they fall in love. The piece follows their journey across forty years – vast expanses of time that are simply hop-skip-and-jumped over – as they leave for the city and Gaylord descends deeper and deeper into debt.

Written in 1927, Show Boat is credited as one of the first musicals with a song and narrative structure as we know them today. It was also fairly daring in the fact that it dealt with weighty subjects: racial tensions in late 1880s America and the destructive force of a gambling addiction. But Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern's musical is far lighter than Edna Ferber's original novel, ending with an audacious sweep of a happy ending over one short scene that's feels a slight cop-out. And though it is clearly ahead of its time in the way it deals with race, it is definitely a musical that's mainly about the plight of white folks.

However, in his bold and brilliant production Evans makes a lot of the tunes with the boat workers and the ensemble numbers. Sandra Marvin as Queenie the ship's cook gets an absolutely stonking opportunity to show off her fabulous voice with the likes of "Mis'ry's Comin' Around" and "Hey, Feller!". Emmanuel Kojo as Joe sings the haunting "Ol' Man River" and he has a remarkably rich voice that here rings with a quiet sorrow. Kojo is clearly a talent to watch.

Upbeat, joyful and electrified by Alistair David's stonking choreography, the ensemble numbers are the heart of this piece: they are rousingly staged on Lez Brotherston's versatile ship designs, and are an absolute treat to watch. David imbues the movement with a glorious irreverence – stamping, hand-waving and knee knocking – that sticks two fingers up to the darkness of the times.

Evans' cast are an all-round superb bunch, but much must be said for Michael Xavier and Gina Beck who lead as Gaylord and Magnolia. Their voices are a beautiful match and they deliver Hammerstein and Kern's remarkable songs with absolute skill. Don't be left shoreside – I'd recommend getting aboard this Show Boat before it weighs anchor.

Show Boat runs at the Sheffield Crucible until 23 January.