A true legacy musical, Show Boat was written almost 100 years ago. It’s a testament to its longevity that it still feels as relevant and powerful today as it did back then.
This new production, which began life last year at the Sheffield Crucible Theatre, and is now playing at the New London Theatre, is a triumph. Daniel Evans’ stunning direction oozes with old school, vaudeville charm, and the whole thing feels like its playing out in sumptuous sepia tones. And yet, at the same time, it still feels gloriously fresh and modern, simultaneously shiny and new, while maintaining that feeling of a pure classic.
The story follows the fortunes of Captain Andy Hawks (Malcolm Sinclair) and his family, the crew and the stars of his show boat, the Cotton Blossom, as it sails up and down the Mississippi, entertaining folk along the riverbank. The beauty of the show is that its narrative spans 40 years, so the characters change significantly from beginning to end, experiencing the highs and lows of a life lived over four decades – this includes a World War, the beginning of the women’s civil rights movement, the dawn of the Klu Klux Klan’s tyranny, and much more.
It is Magnolia (Gina Beck), who ages from a mere 16 to 56 during the story, who is at the heart of the drama. Desperate to be a star on board the Cotton Blossom, she falls in love with the charming but ill-suited Gaylord Ravenal (Chris Peluso), and in doing so risks the destruction of the joyous relationships she has with her parents, Andy and Parthy (Lucy Briers), and her friends on board, including the Cotton Blossom’s leading lady Julie le Verne (Rebecca Trehearn), whose voice is as soothing as warm honey, and who has a terrible secret of her own.
It’s easy to just say the whole cast are incredible, but it’s absolutely true here. Beck in particular lights up the stage, so stunning is her prowess for one of such diminutive size (she’s minute!). Her duets with Peluso are some of the shows real highlights, particularly the gorgeous You Are Love, which can’t help but make you feel all bubbly inside. In many ways, Show Boat is a veritable smörgåsbord of incredible double acts and stunning pairings: Danny Collins and Alex Young are wonderful as actors Frank and Ellie, also desperate to be headliners; while Sinclair and Briers make for formidable sparring partners, adding a heavy dose of comedy to this wonderful ensemble. But if one couple is truly going to steal your heart, it’s Joe (Emmanuel Kojo) and Queenie (Sandra Marvin), whose bickering and affection for each other is wonderfully played out. They are both, simply, a sheer joy to watch every time they’re onstage, and, with Marvin in particular, you’ll be surprised that someone can have that much sass, she’s so magnificent.
If you know anything about Show Boat already, it’s sure to be the music, and the numbers here are all spectacular. The aforementioned You Are Love is gorgeously staged, while Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, so perfectly done, is such an earworm that you’ll still be singing it days later. The biggie, of course, Ol’ Man River, is performed with sheer gusto by the tremendous Kojo that is rightfully brings down the house – this alone making this sumptuous revival a five-star must-see.
Show Boat is now playing at the New London Theatre, and you can book tickets here. Plus, check out our behind-the-scenes sneak peek with the cast…