A dim and distant memory from my childhood is the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle playing an LP (that’s what they were called in those days) with highlights from Show Boat on one side and Roberta on the other. I remembered the tunes being, on the whole, pretty enjoyable. Pursuant to following up these memories, sometime in my 20s I discovered the album of Roberta (probably in Tower Records, remember that?) took it home, played it, hated it, and never played it again. However, I never got round to buying an album of Show Boat, and I guess the songs from that show left my conscious mind and settled somewhere in the back of my subconscious, waiting for an unlocking moment when I would finally get round to seeing a production of the show myself.
Artistic Director of the Crucible, Daniel Evans, is on his way south to taking up the reins at Chichester this summer. For his Sheffield Christmas musical swansong, he couldn’t have chosen a better production than Show Boat. Considered the first “modern” musical, it was adapted from Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel by no less than the renowned Jerome Kern and a still relatively young Oscar Hammerstein II. It was produced by the legendary Florenz Ziegfeld (of the Follies fame) and first hit the stage in 1927 with its significant multiracial cast and its, for the time, almost unique structure combining music, lyrics and libretto.
The show boat seems a quaint institution today, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in America they were at the heart of bringing entertainment to communities outside the big cities. Ferber’s novel follows three generations of women through the history of running and working on one of these vessels. The musical adaptation concentrates less on the characterisation of the women and more on general life aboard the show boat, specifically the relationship between Magnolia and Gaylord from their hopeful beginnings to their somewhat desolate conclusion.
Captain Andy runs the Cotton Blossom, a show boat that chugs up and down the Mississippi, full of actors, singers and dancers, backstage hands, kitchen staff and boat mechanics. Andy is married to the redoubtable Parthenia, and their daughter Magnolia is entranced by the glamour of life on board. She’s also entranced with handsome gambler Gaylord Ravenal (you have to admit, these names are priceless today). Two of the boat’s leading performers, Julie and Steve, are charged with miscegenation, as it was illegal for a white man and a black woman to marry. Even though they evade the law, they are forced to leave the boat, as it was not acceptable for black people to appear before the white segregated audience. In retrospect it’s easy to see why this was such a ground-breaking show! Magnolia and Gaylord take Julie and Steve’s place, and eventually get married. They move to Chicago and have a daughter, Kim; but Gaylord’s gambling crashes out of control and, unable to support his family, he moves out. And I’ll leave the plot synopsis there because if you haven’t seen it yet, I don’t want to ruin it for you!
I must draw your attention, gentle reader, to the fact that this is one of those edgy experiences in the theatre where some characters use the N word. It’s amazing the impact it can have on an audience. When Scout innocently blurted it out in To Kill a Mockingbird, we all winced. Its usage in Show Boat is possibly even more uncomfortable, as it both accompanies the mindless mistreatment of the black dock workers as well as the legal harassment of Steve and Julie. Still, IMHO, it’s better to include it than to sanitise the show, and, to be honest, you get great theatrical intensity out of it. Incidentally, why is it acceptable to use the N word on stage like this but that famous Agatha Christie book has now been substantially amended to And Then There Were None? I’m merely wondering about the inconsistency.
Enough of that, what about the score? It’s really one of history’s most rewarding musicals from a purely musical point of view. As the show started to unwrap my subconscious memories of the Dowager Mrs C singing along whilst attending to chores, I was amazed to realise how many superb and well-known songs are performed in this show. Ol’ Man River, of course, was no surprise – one of the most stirring, moving and simply beautiful songs ever to come out of musical theatre. But I couldn’t believe my ears when, just a little way into the show Gaylord and Magnolia sing Only Make Believe. It was like a sudden blast from the past hitting my auditory nerves. It’s such a sweet and touching song, and I don’t think I’ve heard it since maybe before I was a teenager. I had to fight back the urge to sing along, because all the words came to me instantly. Of course, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man is an absolute classic, and the show demonstrates how versatile it is by the number of different styles and arrangements that suit it perfectly. Bill is another sweet song that the Dowager used to perform at the drop of a hat – and is a complete show-stopper in this production. Originally written by Kern with P G Wodehouse in 1917, the words were later adapted by Hammerstein. And another old favourite suddenly appeared, that I had no idea was from this show – After The Ball. I would have put money on that being a Noel Coward song. Actually, neither is correct. It was written by Charles K Harris in 1892, and is simply borrowed for use in Show Boat, as an example of a typical type of song that might have been sung in that era. Captain Andy encourages us, the audience, to sing along – although he doesn’t actually mean us, he means the audience who were watching Magnolia perform that song in the Trocadero on that New Year’s Eve. Nevertheless, I needed no second bidding and gave it my all, much to the embarrassment of Mrs Chrisparkle. I couldn’t help it. As Cat Stevens once said, I can’t keep it in, I just gotta let it out.
The production is a credit to everyone involved. When you find out the sets are by Lez Brotherston, you know they are going to be superb – and they are. David White’s band produce a fantastic sound from their little subterranean cubbyhole. Alistair David’s choreography is fresh and lively, using the maximum space that the Crucible can allow and incorporating many different styles. And the amazing cast, studded with people who are absolutely at the top of their game, perform with true commitment and sincerity, producing some scenes of real raw emotion, as well as musical delight.
In fact I was surprised – and excited – to see so many names in the cast whose work I’ve been lucky enough to see before and have really enjoyed. Gina Beck, whom I last saw when she was pouring me a drink at the cabaret tables in the excellent Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, brings youthful enthusiasm to the young Magnolia, and dignified regret and grim determination to the sadder Magnolia of later years. She has a wonderful purity to her voice, and gives a very personal expression to all her songs. It’s a great performance. She’s matched, in the marriage stakes at least, by the fantastic Michael Xavier, who we last saw giving it large as Cornelius in the Curve’s Hello Dolly. He cuts a dashing figure as the young Gaylord – and I found his portrayal of the pitifully washed-up older man very moving. Of course, he sings with amazing resonance and clarity, and the two perform together brilliantly.
Everyone who goes to see Show Boat will be looking forward to – and have high expectations of – the performance of Ol’ Man River. So no pressure there! It falls to Emmanuel Kojo to take the part of Joe, whom we last saw as one of the Scottsboro Boys, and he takes to it like the proverbial duck to water. Tremendous raw emotion, a quiet, solid dignity, highly believable as an ordinary, hard-working man with no prospect of ever bettering himself, but strangely secure in his own position. You might think that the show will centre on this song, but in fact it comes quite early on, and, although there are a couple of reprises, it’s not the essence of the show in the way that you might suspect. Joe has his Queenie, the Cotton Blossom’s cook, played by the powerful Sandra Marvin, whom we last saw dishing it out as the devious Mama Morton in Chicago. Ms Marvin gives us the moving Mis’ry’s Coming Aroun’, the uplifting Hey Feller, and, with Mr Kojo, the two of them combine with great humour and a lightness of touch for the utterly charming I Still Suits Me – think of a 1920s Mississippi version of Alesha Dixon’s The Boy Does Nothing. If the likes of Ellie and Frank are on the way up in this world, and Magnolia and Gaylord are on the way down, Joe and Queenie represent a constant level; forever working hard to stay in the same place, rather like the incessant flow of the ol’ man river itself, they just keep rolling along.
Alex Young (brilliant in both last year’s Anything Goes and the touring High Society a few years ago gives another chirpy and cute performance as Ellie, the rising star, and she is matched by the brilliant Danny Collins, a fantastic dancer whose performances we have enjoyed both as part of Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty company and Drew McOnie’s Drunk, here giving us his full stagey showdance routines. Allan Corduner is a bluff and avuncular Captain Andy, and Lucy Briers perfect as the grim and grumpy Parthy, seriously channelling what Captain Andy calls her “mean disposition”. We saw her recently equally grim and grumpy in the Young Chekhov season at Chichester, and before that in the Royal and Derngate’s Ayckbourn season back in 2009. I’d love to see her play a cheerful role for a change! I also really enjoyed the performances of Rebecca Trehearn as Julie and Bob Harms as Steve (and many other characters) – Mr Harms is getting to be a bit of a regular in Sheffield, and that can only be A Good Thing. I’m not going to mention everyone, but the entire cast get behind the show with such attack and talent that the show whizzes past in the blink of an eye.
Another great Christmas Crucible production. I waited many years finally to see Show Boat on stage and it was well worth the wait! It’s on till 23rd January so you still have time to jump aboard the Cotton Blossom. My only hope now is that Daniel Evans’ successor will be equally as adept at staging these great musicals – and that Mr Evans will also have the opportunity to bring his own aptitude for musicals to the Chichester programme; that would be a win-win!
Production photos by Johan Persson