Emmanuel Kojo (Joe) in Show Boat. Photo credit Johan Persson
A true musical masterpiece, which after almost 90 years has plenty of wind in its sails.
Eighty-nine years since it premiered on Broadway, Show Boat still has the power to enthral an audience. Bursting with historical prominence and stirring show-tunes, the play combines vaudeville pomp with seminal drama. Setting sail in 1887, the play spends 40 years with the company on-board the Cotton Blossom. Naturally a ballad laden romance between starry eyed Nolie and handsome drifter Gaylord forms the core of the libretto. But the surrounding trajectories of the Cotton Blossom’s clan give a profound insight into the racial, class and gender divides of the age. As Old Man River rolls along, we see that each of the Show Boat troupe is seeking their own kind of freedom.
Intuitively directed by Daniel Evans, the production is full of emotive performances and character development. Gina Beck plays Nolie as an archetypal jejune musical heroine, brimming with optimism as she lifts up her quavering voice in ‘Only Make Believe.’ This is starkly contrasted to her later grief stricken portrayal. Contrast is central to the show; both in terms of the performers’ on/off stage personas and the vast gulf between the ship’s crew and entertainers. The opening scene shows the black crew lugging cotton bales while the white performers dazzle the crowd in their sequins. Lez Brotherson’s relatively simple set is incredibly effective. The flag strewn bow of the boat is striking and also forms a visual motif of social hierarchy. During their duet it also presents Nolie and Gaylord as the figures atop a wedding cake. Chris Peluso is understated and relatable as the gentile gambler, giving a pitchy rendition of ‘’Til Good Luck Comes my Way.’
Sandra Marvin (Queenie) in Show Boat. Photo credit Johan Persson
Without delving into the show’s political significance, Show Boat remains an entertaining, moving and insightful musical show.
Although Show Boat defies convention by incorporating issues such as race and alcoholism, it conforms stylistically to the golden age musical. The hyperbolic emotions and pratfalling sequences are all performed with classical verve. Be-feathered showgirls line stairways in the Ziegfeld Follie tradition, shrewish wives pester droll husbands and lovesick wooers eventually get the girl. Not to mention the catchy musical numbers are relayed magnificently. The bluesy classic ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’ is rousing and ‘Life upon the Wicked Stage’ has a toe tapping cabaret quality. One can’t help but be moved by the melancholy tones of Sandra Marvin's (read interview) Queenie in the number ‘Mis’ry’s Comin’ Around’. The dance sequences are also faultlessly choreographed by Alistair David, with plenty of jazz hands and high kicks. An especially poignant scene occurs at the end of the first act, when the black and white portions of the river-barge break the law by dancing together in united celebration.
From a historical perspective Kern and Hammerstein II’s show is ground-breaking. It included black actors during a time of enforced segregation and showed changing attitudes to female suffrage and sexuality. In this production this is depicted through a newsreel video montage. But without delving into the show’s political significance, Show Boat remains an entertaining, moving and insightful musical show. The entire theatre vibrated during Emmanuelle Kojo’s soulful performance of ‘Old Man River’ and many eyes were dabbed at the show’s final scene. A true musical masterpiece, which after almost 90 years has plenty of wind in its sails.