The transfer of this marvellous production of Show Boat from Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre to the New London Theatre is an unqualified success. Not every transfer works, but this one does. What worked before still works – exceptionally well.
The configuration of the New London Theatre ensures that the audience is closer to the action than the audience in the original production was and this means that the treatment of racism is more intimate, more confronting. Equally, the romance and the comedy shtick is more naturally involving. All of this ensures that the Show is definitely to the fore in this Show Boat.
Cast changes can result in significant alteration of emphases or style, but the three significant cast changes here do not have that result.
Malcolm Sinclair is an excellent Captain Andy, all mouth and no trousers. He is funny and charming, every inch Magnolia’s protective and doting father, but also a fading would-be lothario. Sinclair makes the relationship with Lucy Brier’s Parthy work splendidly. Somehow, he softens the overall impression of her character without actually requiring Briers to take a softer or less acute angle on the character. He is the mature cheese to her tart pickle; they complement each other terrifically.
Sinclair effortlessly establishes the salesman part of the Riverboat showman clearly and you can see the Mama Rose in his characterization too – always eyeing the stage, controlling what happens there, thinking about joining in. It’s a full and generous, slightly over-the-top-but-not-in-a-bad-way, performance and it helps binds the piece together, especially in Act One.
Chris Peluso replaces Michael Xavier as Gaylord Ravenal, Xavier being busy across town being seduced by Glenn Close/Ria Jones nightly in Sunset Boulevard. Peluso does not have Xavier’s height, nor immediate charm, and although they have very different voices, Peluso sings the part as effortlessly as Xavier did. His deeper hued, baritonal sound suits the material perfectly and his vocal work with the lustrous Gina Beck is incredibly beautiful, golden at the top and secure and burnished across his range. The duets Only Make Believe and You Are Love are quite exquisite; probably the best pairing vocally on any London stage at present.
Peluso seems a very young Ravenal. While this means, happily, that there is no sense of unease about the coupling with the very young Magnolia, it also means that there is a certain lack of gravitas. It is slightly harder to believe that he is a drinker, a gambler, a slayer of men than it ought to be. But this is a minor quibble really – Peluso makes the part work very well and is adept at showing the dissolution of the spirit of the character. His scene with the young Kim (a pert, expressive Lauren Cobey) was genuinely touching and, despite some slightly dodgy “older man” acting, the final reunion scene on the deck of the old Mississippi Hawks home will bring tears to the eye of all but the hardest of hearts.
Leo Roberts, replacing Bob Harms as Steve Baker/ Jim Greene, also seems very young and he does not distinguish between the characters as well as Harms did. But he is still funny and vital and the scene where he confronts the Sherriff, having just cut his wife’s hand so that their blood could be mingled together is as startling and effective as it needs to be.
In every other respect, the cast and the production deliver the goods in London just as they did in Sheffield.
Beck is in possibly finer voice than she was in Sheffield, no doubt a result of continuously singing this ebullient and ravishing score. She is an exceptional, perfect Magnolia and everything she does sparkles with grace and charm. She establishes clear relationships with her parents (Briers and Sinclair) and her chemistry with Peluso is tangible and infectious.
Equally, Rebecca Trehearn is remarkably moving and enchantingly warm as the doomed Julie La Verne. Her voice is quite extraordinary, agile and full bodied. You can just about taste the whiskey in her phrasing and delivery of Bill and her Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man is laced with heartache and passion. Trehearn and Beck are world class.
As are Emmanuel Kojo and Sandra Marvin (Joe and Queenie respectively), both of whom are beguiling and thoroughly believable. They deal well with the racism the narrative puts under a spotlight, their eyes bright with fear and suspicion when confrontation looms, but also with defiance and disquiet. They chart the long love of these two characters with genial care, and their truly delightful version of I Still Suits Me is both funny and tender, the encapsulation of a lifelong love affair. Kojo delivers the goods too with Ol’ Man River, as fervent and richly toned as could be desired. Not to be outdone, Marvin makes the absolute most out of Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’.
Danny Collins and Alex Young are as silly and mis-matched as they seemed before, bringing the necessary footwork and pizazz to the Show Boat family in the shape of Frank and Ellie May. Both have grown more confident in their performances and they work very well together as a team. Their transformed “uppity” Hollywood selves are very funny and the song and dance work they do never flags. In a show with many musical highpoints, they ensure that Life Upon The Wicked Stage and Goodbye My Lady Love are the bright, bubbly light touches they need to be.
The company are spirited and engaging throughout, bringing great energy and commitment to every aspect of Daniel Evans’ directorial vision and Alistair David’s quirky, exacting and hugely enjoyable choreography. Tom Brady and David White have excelled in keeping the musical aspects of the production in stellar form and orchestra and company are in harmonious balance throughout – full credit to Paul Groothuis’ sound design. The presence of Sunset Boulevard in the West End does however highlight the absence of strings – if only, it were possible to have an orchestra of the size that the ENO provided for that production in every production on the West End. So much richness is lost by the less-is-more approach to staffing orchestras.
Show Boat is really where the modern Musical started (Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern – take a bow) and Evans’ terrific production shows that this Grandmother of all that followed it, on West End and Broadway stages, still has much to say and can still say it in a hugely entertaining and exciting way.
Show Boat is docked at the New London theatre til January 2017 at least – don’t let it sail away without seeing it.
Exceptional and unmissable.