Show Boat review at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield – ‘magnificent’
The Christmas musical has become a welcome annual fixture at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, where artistic director Daniel Evans has scored big hits with reliable, often-produced popular classics such as My Fair Lady, Oliver!, and last year’s Anything Goes that subsequently toured the UK. But this year he’s pushed the boat out – in every sense – by choosing another less frequently done standard Show Boat to set sail on the Crucible’s deep thrust stage, and the result is an evening of sweeping magnificence that soars in every department.
Like Anything Goes, it is partly a backstage musical that is set on a boat, in this case a travelling show boat that chugs along the Mississippi River in the late 1800s and turn of the 20th century. The show, written by composer Jerome Kern and lyricist and book writer Oscar Hammerstein II in 1927, famously broke new ground in musicals by tackling serious subjects head-on, and integrating book, songs and staging to create a new template for musicals that could be about society in all its myriad complexity.
Most daringly perhaps, this is a show about divisions of race in American society at the time: “Coloured folks work on de Mississippi, coloured folks work while de white folks play,” we are reminded in one of the show’s most resonant of all the classics that came out of its score, Ol’ Man River. And a key plot point revolves around the illegality of the show boat’s lead singer Julie, who is of mixed race, being in a relationship with a white man.
As with Funny Girl, currently being revived at the Menier Chocolate Factory, another strand follows the troubled relationship of Magnolia Hawks, a performer aboard the boat and also daughter of the boat’s owners, and Gaylord Ravenal, the handsome rake and professional gambler she falls in love with. They just can’t help themselves, whatever the cost (in every way), and as played by the ravishing-sounding Gina Beck and the ever-dashing Michael Xavier, who radiates an old-school, leading man charm, it’s an aching portrait of the fragility of human happiness, vulnerability and loss in life’s choices.
Their songs together, such as Only Make Believe, You are Love and Why Do I Love You?, left me swooning in delight at the gorgeous tones they both bring these songs, full of marvellous melodies and heartfelt emotions. There’s equally thrilling vocal work from Rebecca Trehearn’s Julie on Bill and from Sandra Marvin’s Queenie on Mis’ry’s Coming Around.
But then Evans’ entire production is drenched in feeling and sheer elation throughout, from Alistair David’s eruptions of euphoric dance in the wedding scene, for instance, to David White’s punchy 11-strong pit band.