Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Theatre Review: Show Boat

They say the best theatre teaches us things about ourselves that we didn’t know.

Well I learned something about myself whilst watching Show Boat and that is that I cannot hear the song Ol’ Man River sung live without bursting into tears. And not like gentle, ladylike tears; like full on wracking sobs.

There will be no beating about the bush in this review: the Sheffield Crucible’s West End transfer production of Show Boat is genuinely exceptional and you - yes you - need to see it. I’m being unusually direct (meandering jokes and unrelated asides will resume next post) because, for whatever reason, this show doesn’t seem to have found an audience. And that’s an absolute travesty. It genuinely makes me quite angry.

Image source.

Directed by the Crucible’s outgoing (and, excitingly, Chichester Festival’s incoming) Artistic Director Daniel Evans, Show Boat is just a huge, glitzy, old Broadway joy of a show. For the uninitiated, it tells the story of the cast of characters who live and work aboard and around a traditional Mississippi floating theatre boat - a Show Boat, if you will. What must have made the show revolutionary in its day is that it deals with both the white and the black characters within that story equally and honestly. It is a show that, for all its old school charm and hokey marketing (and herein one suspects lies the problem in it finding an audience), is depressingly relevant in its portrayal of race relations and black rights. For this reason alone it deserves to be seen.

And then there’s the music. Ol’ Man River is of course the big number (I’m tearing up just writing the title, this is ridiculous), and reprised several times, but there is so much glorious music in this show that it makes my head spin. Can’t Help Lovin Dat Man is another highlight, as are Bill and Life Upon the Wicked Stage. But this show shares with Gypsy a feeling of a Broadway Greatest Hits album. If you know your musicals a bit you’ll recognise so many of the songs, even if you didn’t know they came from this show. They are beautifully arranged, sung and played in this production too. Musically, I this is the best show I’ve seen this year and in the top three of shows I’ve seen ever.

The staging of this production is also outstanding. The set revolves around a life size (ish) three story recreation of the back of the titular boat which retracts when the action moves onto land, as it does in act two, and is otherwise fairly simply dressed. It’s so effective and the lighting in particular is just flat out beautiful. As anyone who’s seen a Crucible musical production before will have come to expect, the choreography (courtesy of Alistair David) is amazing, especially in the big group numbers. The costumes are perfect.

Finally, this superlative production has a superlative cast. Show Boat is sort of an ensemble piece and there is strength in depth on view all over the place here. Gina Beck, owner of one of the best voices in the West End, and Broadway import Chris Peluso are on superb form as the doomed lovers at the centre of the story, even if Peluso’s character must be one of the least likeable ever written for a musical. Danny Collins, more often seen in Matthew Bourne ballets, shows off considerable comedic chops as well as the fantastic moves you’d expect in one of the less serious lead roles. Sandra Marvin is an outstanding Queenie. And, on the night I saw it, superstar understudy Tosh Wanogho-Maud was a stunning Joe, squeezing every inch of feeling out of Ol’ Man River.

So, yeah, I loved this show. I loved everything about it. And you need to see it before it closes early (ridiculous) at the end of August. There are excellent ticket deals around. Use them.

Show Boat plays at the New London Theatre (nicer on the inside than it looks!) until 27th August.

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