Benet Catty Productions

Showboat (WE 2016)

Apr 28, 2016

New London

Lots of musicals can lay claim to being landmarks. Cats invented the British dance musical. Hair brought rock music into the theatre. Porgy and Bess blurred the boundaries of theatre and opera. But many fewer can lay claim to creating the art form as we know it.

Oklahoma! was famously the first to integrate story, dialogue, dance and song in the way we expect now. But twenty years before that Rodgers and Hammerstein classic there was Showboat, marking the moment when musicals moved from being variety shows to dramatic entities. Showboat was, truly, a landmark musical.

Next year it will be 90 years since Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II\'s masterwork first opened in New York and indeed almost 25 years since it was last seen in a major West End revival. Then, directed by the Broadway giant Harold Prince, it had spectacle but a certain ponderousness; an over-awareness of its own significance.

Daniel Evans\' fluent, fluid, more straight forward staging (transferred from Sheffield) is less elaborate, better acted and a good deal shorter. It doesn\'t show off its significance or overplay its emotional cards. It is gentle, warm, nostalgic and touching. It is not in the least pretentious and rarely even sentimental, which sets it apart from most West End shows at the moment (Kinky Boots, I\'m looking at you).

Unlike most big musicals, Showboat is in many ways less a narrative than a slice of life spread across (and between) generations - several generations of a family and several generations of time. Beginning in 1887 when the protagonists are in the first flush of youth and love and ending in 1927 (the present day when the show opened) we follow the goings on of an entertainment ship with its revues and soloists as it goes up and down the Mississippi. The blacks and whites mix, not always comfortably, in the bustle of the ship community and gradually come to harmonise.

A gambler, Gaylord, has his eye and heart taken by the young singer, Magnolia, their first sight of each other here being marked not by music or obfuscation but by a long shared look across the expanses of an empty deck. The rises and falls of their relationship over their lifetimes is the main plank of the story, which variously intersects with Magnolia\'s best friend Julie who is sacked from the ship when it transpires that she is mixed race in contravention of the miscegenation laws of the time. Meanwhile, as we\'re told several times in the show\'s stand-out number, \"Ol\' Man River\" (the Mississippi, but also a symbol of time and life) \"jes\' keeps movin\' along\".

The idea of such a substantially black cast appearing in a Broadway show was dazzling in 1927 and is still a relatively rare sight in the commercial theatre now although Ma Rainey\'s Black Bottom at the National and Motown in the West End (both with black casts) have pleasingly bucked that trend lately. It\'s always a good rule for musicals that if you want to see who the writers really care about then have a look who gets the best songs. Ol\' Man River is sung by the black dock worker, Joe, and his friends.

Showboat is significant in other ways too. Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, who\'d go on to even greater success twenty years later with Richard Rodgers, here invented what one might call the anticipatory love song. Addressing the structural difficulty inherent in any musical of how to have a love ballad early in the show when the characters don\'t know each other well enough to justify it, Hammerstein wrote \"Only Make Believe\" in which Gaylord and Magnolia sing about what if they were in love and, in so-imagining, they come to feel it for themselves. He would do the same again on Oklahoma (\"People Will Say We\'re in Love\") and Carousel (\"If I Loved You\"), all standout songs from their respective shows.

This production isn\'t just one for the musical aficionados though. The two leads, Chris Peluso and Gina Beck, sing the show with the gorgeous operatic voices that remind one of the debt Jerome Kern\'s score owes to opera rather than the musical comedy of the time. There is strong support from Malcolm Sinclair as Captain Andy Hawks, an old duffer role that could quite easily be a recipe for over-acting and self-indulgence but he plays with wit and charm. Rebecca Trehearn (singing the famous \"Bill\" with wondrous understated power), Sandra Marvin and Leo Roberts also distinguish themselves amongst a large ensemble cast.

Showboat has not been revived here for almost 25 years and it may be a while before this landmark musical is seen in London again. This production of it is a lovely evening out and deserves to keeping sailing through the summer and beyond.

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