Last Saturday we took a long journey up to the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield and also journeyed back to the first milestone of the American musical, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's legendary SHOW BOAT.
I had previously seen the show once before in 1991 when Ian Judge directed an Opera North revival at the London Palladium with a memorable cast of Jan Hartley (Magnolia), Bruce Hubbard (Joe), Marilyn Cutts (Julie), David Healy (Cap'n Andy), Karla Burns (Queenie) and Margaret Courtenay (Parthy). Nearly 25 years later I can still remember the production well.
But Daniel Evans - soon to be the artistic director of Chichester Festival Theatre - has directed a fine production which smoothly moves through the show's timespan of 40 years. It's a shame we do not see this show produced more often because it's one of the best Broadway shows which boasts a stunning score including "Ol' Man River", "Can't Help Lovin Dat Man", "Bill" and "Why Do I Love You?" among other classics.
The show, based on Edna Ferber's novel, broke the mould of previous revue-style shows and operettas, by telling a story which touched on serious themes with it's musical numbers allowing the story and the characters to develop. Indeed Hammerstein's book, although admittedly thin on character development, does indeed touch on the racism that the black workers on the Show Boat faced from their overseers, which of course lend "Ol' Man River" a greater weight when seen within the show's context.
Through the timespan, apart from the travails of Magnolia's love for gambler Gaylord, we also see the times changing for the Show Boat performers too - song-and-dance team Frank & Ellie evolve from low comedy performers to headliners until they reveal in the final scene that they have moved to Hollywood.
Lez Brotherston's set design makes good use of the Crucible's thrust stage and his minimalist Show Boat was hugely evocative - although the cast probably could do without all those stairs! The great lighting designer David Hersey has also given the show a glowing vitality and kudos too for Tim Reid's video projections which helped the years melt away within the show.
There are sparkling performances from Evans' handsome cast - Michael Xavier was in excellent voice as the raffish Gaylord Ravenal (although Owen did note that ultimately his character could be given more to do), Gina Beck was a delightful Magnolia (although at times her strong operatic soprano lent too hard on the notes), Allan Corduner was (and appeared to have) great fun as Cap'n Andy and was well-partnered by Lucy Briers' scowling Parthy Ann.
Emmanuel Kojo nearly stopped the show with his rousing "Ol' Man River" and he too was well partnered by Sandra Marvin's no-messing Queenie. As you will see, it's interesting how there are so many couples within the show, another being the song-and-dance team of Frank and Ellie and they too were well played by Danny Collins and Alex Young - Collins energetic, athletic dancing betrayed his extensive work with Matthew Bourne.
Although initially partnered with Bob Harms' Frank Baker, Rebecca Trehearn as Julie LaVerne always suggested her character's inner solitude. Julie is the star of the Show Boat cast until a jilted co-worker tells local lawmen her secret: Julie has been hiding that she is a half-caste. She has to leave the boat which starts a downward spiral ending up as an alcoholic club singer. Trehearn sang my two favourite songs in the score "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and "Bill" and gave a haunting, quietly tragic performance.
It was wonderful to experience this show on stage again, and it proved that a historical milestone from 1927 can be as vital, touching and entertaining as ever.