Show Boat (New London Theatre)

Captain Andy’s Show Boat, the Cotton Blossom, has come to town in Daniel Evans’ fabulous production (fresh from Sheffield), and the classic socre by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II sounds as a sharp and as tuneful as ever.  There’s plenty of wit and life in this production, which has a small but hard-working cast, with some notably outstanding work from Sandra Marvin (Queenie), Rebecca Trehearn (Julie), Emmanuel Kojo (Joe) and Alex Young (Ellie May Chipley).

Young Magnolia Hawks (Gina Beck) lives on the Cotton Blossom with her parents, and while the Captain (Malcolm Sinclair) lives for showbusiness, mother Parthy (Lucy Briers) sees herself a cut above the river rats and players she has been living alongside for years, and wants something better for her daughter.  Magnolia wants nothing more than to be a leading lady, and to fall in love, and when Gaylord Ravenal (Chris Peluso) turns up, all charm in his sharp suit, she finds the latter, and in a powerful sequence where Julie has to leave the show boat, finds she suddenly has the chance to become the star.

This musical premiered in the USA in 1927, and was the first modern musical to move away from the conventions of vaudeville and operetta; it also dealt with racial issues with a vibrant mixed cast.  If you’ve seen the 1936 film with the feted bass singer Paul Robeson as Joe you will know that any singer has big shoes to fill with ‘Old Man River’, but Kojo is excellent here in both that huge number and (a delight to see) the fun duet with Queenie which was written for the film, ‘Ah Still Suits Me’.

Go on, have a look at that number as it appeared in the film, here:

Julie La Verne is a tragic figure, which Trehearn catches very well.  Her exuberance leading the kitchen staff in the negro song ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine’ gives way in the second half to her touching delivery of ‘Bill’ (not an original song for the show, it was written by Kern with PG Wodehouse back in 1917 for another production, but never used).

Here’s Trehearn performing the number:

Julie gives two big chances to Magnolia, making her the kindest heart on the river.  Magnolia and Gay fall in love as they play opposite each other (they have first felt attraction through ‘Make Believe’ at their first meeting), and although they have a child and settle in Chicago, his gambling and drinking is his downfall, and she is left to make her own way in the world.

The Trocadero scene loses something here by having no sense of a packed New Year’s Eve: instead, actors playing waiters and punters are scattered through the auditorium, giving us a sense of being the exclusive audience there as 1899 gives way to 1900.  Beck’s singing of ‘After the Ball’ is eventually gutsy and triumphant, and the song remains sentimental enough to bring a tear to the eye, but it doesn’t touch the sequence )one of my favourites) in the 1952 film.

Beck reminded me very much of Irene Dunne (the 1936 Magnolia) in her acting, she is a mischievous little flirt in her innocence and a regal miss in her poverty.  It’s a strong performance; while Peluso is excellent as Gay and in fine voice.  Leo Roberts plays Steven Baker and Jim Greene (in the later role resembling the early talkie singer, John Boles, which was interesting, if a little distracting!).  As the Hawks’ senior, Sinclair is an excellent Andy, winking connivingly at the audience as he gets one over on his wife, while Briers is a marvellous Parthy, steering the part away from the comic shrew she is so often reduced to.

The second half, following the chimes for the new century, fast-forwards through nearly thirty years before we meet the aged Joe and Queenie, and she leads the chorus in a blistering version of the feel-good ‘Hey Feller!’.  It’s a problematic ending, but there is no true reconciliation between the returning Gay and the strong Magnolia, who has raised their daughter alone.  The hurt and the distance was well conveyed, and if the adult Kim runs to forgive her father, the mother might find it much harder.

Here’s Gay and Magnolia in happier times, courtesy of the 1951 film, and that first duet of ‘Make Believe’:

Go and see this show if at all possible.  It is closing in August, and it is probably one of the best shows in town right now.  It will make you smile, tap your feet, and maybe even cry just a little.  Not bad for a musical which is approaching its ninetieth birthday.

About Louise Penn

Writer, reviewer, fan. View all posts by Louise Penn

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