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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp London London Review
Show Boat

"There is no reason why I should love that man,
It must be somethin' that de angels have planned.
Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly,
I gotta love one man till I die .
Can't help lovin' dat man of mine. "
— Lyric
Show Boat
The cast of Show Boat (Photo: Johan Persson)
I was blown away by Hal Prince's production of Show Boat in the mid 1990s. Here was a musical with a deep and penetrating theme with some of the most beautiful songs ever. As "Ol' Man River" was sung from the depths of the singer's bass register, I was transfixed. I know that is a lot to live up to and is there anything more annoying for today's theatregoer than hearing about some fabulous production that is long gone? But such is the fate of the critic who has seen so much over the years.

The opening songs from the Stevedores and Joe of "Cotton Blossom" and "Ol' Man River" are as moving as ever in Daniel Evans' Sheffield production. This show has come to the New London Theatre in the West End, recently home to Warhorse, and memorable for the revolving stage in the first productions of Cats.

I was less impressed by the first showgirls' number "Captain Andy Ballyhoo" as the cast twirled red and blue, what looked like sequined table tennis bats, as a part of the dance routine from the twin cast iron staircases and balcony of the steam paddle boat. Why? Somehow Malcolm Sinclair's Captain Andy seemed less at home running the showboat than a military outfit and the first half had an awkwardness which made it difficult to believe in this nineteenth century confection.

Chris Peluso as the romantic antihero, Gaylord Ravenal courts Magnolia (Gina Beck) with his beautiful voice but why Captain Andy pushes his daughter into a marriage with a man with a serious gambling addiction doesn't make sense, except to spite his wife Parthy Ann (Lucy Briers). Queenie's blues song "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun' " is beautiful if rather out of character with the other songs of the show.

But the main issue for today's audiences is mulatto Julie's (Rebecca Trehearne) marriage to white man Steve Baker (Leo Roberts) and the impending charge of the 1880s crime of miscegenation. Can you believe that these laws against interracial marriage weren't repealed in all states until 1967? Steve saves the day by cutting his hand and mixing his blood with Julie's so the witnesses can swear he too has black blood but she has to leave the show because black actors could not appear alongside white ones in the 1880s South.

The second act seems to warm up with Gaylord's return to his loving wife Magnolia after 23 years away to sort out his gambling problem. Julie's song "Bill" and Magnolia's "Can't Help Loving That Man Of Mine" are highlights of the show. The songs are beautifully sung and the sets are functional rather than jaw dropping. For Chesley Plemmons' review of Show Boat in Connecticut in 2015 and the complete song list go here.

One caveat— although no mobile phones went off there were elderly members of the audience joining in with some of the songs so the wonderful tunes were making some forget theatre etiquette. Does Show Boat need to stage relaxed performances as is done for autistic and Aspergers' audience members or even a singalong show?

Show Boat
Music by Jerome Kern
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein III
Based on the novel by Edna Ferber
Directed by Daniel Evans
Starring: Malcolm Sinclair, Chris Peluso, Gina Beck, Lucy Briers, Rebecca Trehearn, Emmanuel Kojo, Sandra Marvin, Alex Young, Danny Collins
With: John Coates, Adam Dutton, Kit Esuruoso, Nolan Frederick, Linford Johnson, Javar La'Trail Parker, Kate Milner-Evans, Maria Omakinwa, Ryan Pidgen, Mykal Rand, Leo Roberts, Tosh Wanogho-Maud, Christina Bennington, Victoria Hinde, Linda John-Pierre and Simbi Akande, Georgie Ashford, Laura Darton, Joshua Da Costa, Dale Evans and Tom Partridge, Lauren Cobey, Mia Long, Isabella Manca, Grace Schneider
Design: Lez Brotherson
Choreographer: Alistair David
Orchestrations: Dan Delange
Musical Supervisor: David White
Musical Director : Tom Brady
Video Designer: Tim Reid
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Lighting: David Hershey
Running time: Two hours 35 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7492 0810
Booking to 17th August 2016
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 27th April 2016 performance at The New London Theatre, 166 Drury Lane, London, WC2B 5PW (Tube: Holborn)
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