As most Broadway aficionados know, the American musical theatre came of age on Dec. 27, 1927, when the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II musical Show Boat opened in New York at the Ziegfeld Theatre. Based on Edna Ferber’s bestseller, it produced more hit songs than any of its predecessors. It boasted an integrated score with lyrics that furthered the plot and dared to tackle the then-taboo subject of miscegenation. It was bold, it was daring, it broke new ground, and to this day it has one of the greatest scores ever written for a Broadway musical.
Little wonder, then, that it’s a hardy perennial with ongoing durability. The latest incarnation reaches the West End via a successful run at the Crucible in Sheffield, where it received rave reviews and sold out nightly. I didn’t see it there, and although this production, confidently directed by Daniel Evans, gets a fair chunk of it right, overall something clearly has been lost in its West End transfer.
The problem with doing Show Boat today is that it is impossible not to measure any new staging against two terrific screen versions (1936 and 1951), the many excellent revivals on both sides of the Atlantic and the definitive three-disc CD boxed set lovingly conducted by John McGlinn, whose dream team would be hard to improve upon.
For starters, this latest offering has an unstarry (and mainly uncharismatic) cast, with the most competent performances coming from Chris Peluso as gambler Gaylord Ravenal and Gina Beck as Magnolia Hawks, the ingénue with whom he falls in love at first sight. They sing the show’s two great love duets, "Make Believe" and "You Are Love," most engagingly.
Rebecca Trehearn as Julie La Verne, the Cotton Blossom’s tragic coloured leading lady who’s married to a white man, does a pretty good job with the great torch song, "Bill," while best of all is Danny Collins as Frank Schultz, the show boat’s comic hoofer. Many of the supporting cast members, however, struggle with shaky Southern accents and so-so voices. As Joe, Emmanuel Kojo is in pretty good vocal fettle, but he’s far too young for this seminal role and brings little gravitas to "Ol’ Man River," the most famous song. As his wife Queenie, Sandra Marvin is zesty enough but vocally unfocused. The one performance that hasn’t landed at all yet is Malcolm Sinclair’s as Captain Andy.
The physical production (sets and costumes by Lez Brotherston) is serviceable, though the Cotton Blossom could have had more pizzazz. And in a theatre the size of the New London, the chorus seemed under populated. The stage really needed more people to fill it, and so did Alistair David’s uninventive choreography. Though enjoyable in parts, (mainly in act two), this is not the triumph all those five-star raves from Sheffield led me to believe it was.