Show Boat is one of the classic musicals, a show that redefined what musical theatre could be when it was originally produced back in 1927. It’s worth bearing this in mind when watching: although it may seem old-fashioned now, the tale of a travelling showboat over the course of several decades was truly groundbreaking at the time.
The central story concerns the love affair between the unfortunately-named Gaylord (an excellent Chris Peluso) and the daughter of the Cotton Blossom‘s proprietor, Magnolia (a wonderful Gina Beck). A side plot follow the fortunes of Julie (a glorious Rebecca Trehearn) and her husband Steve.
For the time, Show Boat was groundbreaking in it’s treatment of racism: emphasis is placed on the way the black characters have to do the work “while the white folks play”, while composers Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein demonstrate clear respect for black culture. It’s a black character, Joe, who gets the best song in the show “Ol’ Man River”, a showstopping moment when performed by the hugely talented Emmanuel Kojo. Admittedly the racism issues are pushed to one side in favour of the less-compelling love story, but I have to remind myself that this show was written almost ninety years ago.
In Daniel Evans’ production the boat takes centre stage, and a beautiful boat it is, while the different locations in the story are cleverly and simply delineated. The passage of time is less successfully demonstrated: I was rather confused by the huge leap forward towards the end, especially as some of the characters hardly seemed to have aged a day, while others appeared ancient and Magnolia’s mother actually seemed younger. I suspect the issue is with the book, however, not the production itself.
Show Boat is a flawed musical: Julie’s story is left unresolved, while I was frequently annoyed at Gaylord and ‘Nola’s relationship. That said, this stunning production boasts a first class cast, and it’s worth seeing as a piece of theatrical history.