The look in her eyes is wild, scared. We have not seen her like this; something has really unsettled her. She is the comedienne on the Show Boat but whatever she knows is far from funny. She interrupts the rehearsal that is going on, warning of what is about to happen.
Then the leading lady swoons, as if she might pass out. Her partner/lover holds her, looks scared and appalled. Boat people and townsfolk look on. A beat of savage silence.
Then he produces a knife. Someone screams. Fear ripples through the crowd. His partner looks at him uncomprehending. He promises not to hurt her, asks her to trust him. Then he slices her palm with the knife, and quickly puts the bleeding wound to his mouth, ingesting her spilt blood like a mad man.
Consternation. Uncertainty. Fear.
Suddenly the Sheriff is there. An unrequited admirer of the leading lady has given information to the authorities that the Show Boat is harbouring criminals; a couple guilty of miscegenation, impermissible inter-racial marriage. This is Mississippi after all, before the turn of the Twentieth Century. Forcibly, the Sheriff demands “the Niggress” reveal herself.
Shock. Outrage. Denial. Grief. Confusion.
This is Daniel Evans’ masterful and, frankly, astonishing revival of the Jerome Kern (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics) musical adaptation of Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel, Show Boat, now playing at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. This is about as good as it gets for musical theatre; a brilliant showcase of exactly what can be achieved with clear directorial vision, mostly perfect casting, wonderful, wonderful singing and dancing and a design that perfectly permits the essence of the production to be experienced without overwhelming it.
This Show Boat is the perfect entry point for anyone who finds musicals incomprehensible. It shows clearly how words and music can fuse to tell and augment narratives, how music and singing can enhance understanding of character and situation and how music and dance can convey, clearly and articulately, emotions such as fear, regret, true love, suffering and forgiveness.
When it was written in 1927, Show Boat broke new ground. It was the first musical to feature mixed race casts on Broadway and was the first non-comedy musical: this musical might have garnered many laughs, but it was also about very serious subjects, including racism, systemic ill-treatment of black people, gambling and alcohol addiction, and the horror of segregation.
As Evans says so wisely in the programme:
On the one hand, this is a piece that’s ‘of its time’. It depicts a particular culture, at a particular time in history – and that was a time of great change. On the other hand, it’s not hard to see that some of the tensions and prejudices explored in the piece are unfortunately with us to this day.
Joe’s opening lines, Coloured folk work on the Mississippi, immediately establish the gulf between black and white. Repeatedly, the narrative highlights racial issues: an angry white man demands to know where a black woman got a piece of jewellery; the law demands that Julie and Steve not perform on the Show Boat because they are “mixed race”; a celebratory mixed-race dance is quelled by an outraged white woman only for it to be re-started by a defiant Queenie and an uncertain, but willing, Schultz and then cascade into a jubilant celebration of friendship which cuts across racial boundaries and to which, eventually, the outraged woman herself succumbs.
Evans handles the racial issues with care and sensitivity. The plight of the black characters is savagely detailed, but equally detailed is their sense of community, their pride and customs, their care and support for each other and their indispensable contribution to life and society. The marvellously joyful scene in Act Two, when Queenie and Joe, now of advanced years, sing about their happy but simple domestic life and their long companionship provides a sharp contrast to the tragic lives of Ravenal and Magnolia and even the marriage of Captain Andy and Parthy Ann.
It is easy for the action of Show Boat to descend into melodrama, but not here. Evans ensures that all characters are played truthfully, with heart and honesty in equal measure. He is unafraid to make Parthy Ann tough and unforgiving; Julie is seen submerged in a quagmire of alcoholism and hard living; Magnolia suffers silently mostly, so that when she breaks it really means something. Both Ravenal and Joe are drinkers, but both handle it differently.
Evans ensures the musical is peopled with characters that bleed, feel pain and torment, but who find a way to survive. There is a Shakespearean quality to the redemptive reunion between Magnolia and Ravenal made all the more compelling by the reliance upon song to signify forgiveness, and by the breath-held silence that marks Kim’s reaction to the return of her prodigal father. The music is an intense and integral shade in the light of these lives.
Les Brotherston’s design is also an integral part of narrative and the emotions of the work. The open space the Crucible offers is used to full advantage. The joyous sequin and sparkles opening as the titular boat pulls into town is warm and infectious and establishes the world of the boat as one where, essentially, fun and good things happen. It is terrific that the boat can move backward and forward – because coming and going (and staying for that matter) are key issues for the characters.
The docks and areas where the oppressed cotton workers arduously labour are clearly defined, more by the plainness of the setting – a spare wooden floor – and the attitude and singing of the workers. This, too, is clever. Two very separate worlds are established in the same space with ease.
Then, later, when the action moves away from the river, a wooden flat flies in to create a bare, empty proscenium which aptly reflects the lives of most of the major characters at this point. Tim Reid’s clever videos are projected onto this flat to convey a clear sense of the long passage of the years and the changing times, and other locations, including a dire guesthouse, a convent and the flashy Trocadero are clearly created with little fuss. The sense of make-do which is pervading the lives of those not on the river is seamlessly reflected in the settings.
Finally, when all of the characters return to the boat and the river, the stage is freed and the boat returns, bringing with it a sense of long held happiness (exemplified in the relationship between Queenie and Joe) and the prospect of a brighter future – which comes to pass when Magnolia and Ravenal reunite and Kim makes her choice. David Hersey’s beautiful and mood-enhancing lighting (you can almost smell the river, so vivid is the impression of it he creates with lights) couples with the work of Brotherston and Reid, to provide an overall conceptual design conceit which embraces, protects and supports the score and story. It’s first rate work.
The costumes are remarkably impressive, colourful and period. Magnolia’s Trocadera dress is particularly divine but everyone is dressed well and looks great. The old age make-up works well too and does not, as it often can, provoke spontaneous laughter. The entire look of the production is world class.
As ever, Alistair David provides fresh and exciting choreography, sometimes cheeky, sometimes sensual, sometimes playful, sometimes aggressive, sometimes quirky – but always perfect for the situation and within the skillsets of the performers. The result is that the dancing is lively, fiery, intoxicating – some characters express themselves best through movement, Schultz especially, but also Queenie and Joe. Stillness is a movement in its own way, and David harnesses it here with Joe to great effect.
There is marvellous hair choreography too for both Schultz and Steve Baker, although David may not have dictated that. But if he did, it is as inspired as might be expected from him. And very funny.
David White’s musical direction is top class. Dan DeLange’s orchestrations almost, but not quite, make up for the lack of strings in the orchestra. The sound produced by the 12 piece orchestra is rich, brassy and fiery, as well as glittering in the stagey sections and searingly pure in the more romantic passages. All of this makes the tunes sound fresh, vibrant and newly minted. Kern’s score is genuinely thrilling to hear.
The discipline in the singing is remarkable. The harmonies are strong and robust, the melodies soar and envelop you in a cacophony of pleasure. No song is delivered weakly or at less than 110 percent. The top soprano lines are especially thrilling, spinning bolts of intense pleasure; but so too are the expressive bottom notes, deep, dark, with a timbre that reflects pain and understanding but refuses to ignore hope.
The singing here is the best singing, consistently, song by song, of any musical in recent memory. It would be a crime if a recording was not made of this glorious cast performing Show Boat.
Rebecca Trehearn’s ardent, fiery and then desolate Julie is a complete triumph. She handles every aspect of the role with skill, grade and style. Her voice is luxurious, gorgeous in tone, like a mink coat that shimmers, warms and envelops you. She makes your heart leap in Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man and then destroys it in her no holds barred Bill, when the desperation of her life colours her sound but does not extinguish it. Trehearn‘s Julie is a career-defining performance; flawless and brave. Magnificent.
Gina Beck is ravishing as Magnolia. She has a soaring, easy and overwhelmingly beautiful soprano which transforms Kern’s score into pure, passionate pleasure. Beck’s sense of the character is sound; she does not play for sympathy but for truth and this reaps dividends. She is totally believable and her actions totally understandable. Her love for Ravenal is tangible and her inner and outer beauty crystal clear.
Ravenal is a difficult character to like, but Michael Xavier has no difficulty finding a way to be the anti-hero everyone loves. Partly, this is because he is physically perfect for the part, tall, manly, dashing and confident, but also because, like Beck, he plays the character honestly, flaws and attractions all on the table. Then there is his singing. Xavier is no stranger to musical theatre roles, but his vocal power and artistry here is astonishing. His duets with Beck are pure gold, the kind of genuinely starry music making that happens so very rarely these days. His voice is strong across the whole range, golden like honey at the top, but also thick and compelling, tobacco and whiskey seemingly colouring the sound. He just doesn’t sing immaculately, he sings immaculately in character.
Xavier and Beck have extraordinary chemistry together. Their version of Make Believe is easily the best I have ever heard and You Are Love ebullient and exquisite. Musical perfection.
Danny Collins sparkles as the hapless funny guy, Schultz, and his puppy dog adoration for Alex Young’s sardonic Ellie May is beautifully done. Together they sing and dance like a couple made for each other and made to bicker and squabble; their chemistry too is terrific. They are especially good in the sequence where they are but a reflection of their boat selves, after Hollywood has crowned and enriched them. Goodbye My Lady Love is a genuine treat.
Young looks at Ellie May in a very different way from usual productions. Although Ellie May is a showgirl and a bad actress, Young’s character is more than just that. Life Upon The Wicked Stage is done terrifically well, but as a character piece rather than a set piece for long legs kicking. This complexity to Ellie May, the sense she might just wander away from Schultz, gives a real edge to character which is welcome. Again, funny, silly, but honest.
Sandra Marvin is simply wonderful as Queenie; every note, every sway of the hips, every sly smile, every indignant stare, every sly raised eyebrow, every hearty laugh. Her Queenie is earthy, dependable, smart and sexy. And she can sing like a dream. Matching Marvin in every way is Emmanuel Kojo’s startlingly still, watchful and powerful Joe. Together, they are a true delight: I Still Suits Me is a triumphant ode to love and understanding.
Of course, Kojo has the hardest ask: Ol’ Man River. It is a song everyone thinks they know. Undeterred, Kojo delivers the number in big, booming tones and low crocodile-like phrases, sinister and embracing all at once. For once, stand and deliver is impeccably the correct choice. No one bemoaned the oft return of the tune in the course of the show, because Kojo really knows how to keep it moving along. Humbling, dignified and utterly extraordinary.
Lucy Briers enjoys herself immensely as the prudish, dour, hen-pecking Parthy Anne and, as a result, the audience warms to her character immensely. This is a tricky part to pull off but Briers excels. Her voice is strong and clear and it is a pity she did not have more to sing. Allan Corduner starts somewhat shakily as Captain Andy, but soon finds his stride and unearths a rascal of great joy. The best thing Corduner does is to emphasise his character’s optimism and belief in love – which, is the thread which binds all activity here. He and Briers make a great team.
Bob Harms is very impressive as the hair-flicking atrocious actor Steve and then completely unrecognisable as the hard man Jim Greene who gives the broken Julie a hard time in the Trocadero phase of her life. He sings and dances well consistently throughout. There is excellent work throughout, too, from Akintunde Esuruoso, Adam Dutton, Nolan Frederick, Tosh Wanogho-Maud, Victoria Hinde and Linda John-Pierre.
But, in truth, there are no weak links in the ensemble. They all act, sing and dance with ferver and joy.
This Show Boat is an unqualified success in every respect. It seems inconceivable that it will not transfer to the West End. Whether it does not, if you are interested in musical theatre get to Sheffield anyway you can and see this production. What Evans, his cast and creatives has achieved here is memorable and spectacular and not to be missed.