Show Boat, this year’s Christmas production at Sheffield Theatres, opens tonight (16 December). Spanning 40 pivotal years in American history, the epic musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II follows the lives and loves of three generations aboard a show boat as it plies the Mississippi River.
Among those characters is Magnolia Hawks, played by actress and singer GINA BECK who will perform opposite her romantic lead, Michael Xavier, as Gaylord Ravenal.
Gina’s theatre work includes playing Glinda in Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre, West End and on the US national tour, as well as the roles of Christine Daaé in The Phantom of the Opera (Her Majesty’s Theatre) and Cosette in Les Misérables (Queen’s Theatre). She also recently appeared in Far From The Madding Crowd at the Watermill Theatre and I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change at London’s Above the Arts Theatre. Other credits include Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris at the Charing Cross Theatre, The Belle’s Stratagem at the Southwark Playhouse, the role of Maria Von Trapp in The Sound of Music at the Plenary Hall Theatre, Kuala Lumpa, The Kissing Dance (Jermyn Street Theatre) and the Les Miserables 25th Anniversary Concert at the O2 Arena.
Musical Theatre Review editor Lisa Martland chatted to Gina during rehearsals:
What has the creative process been like for Show Boat?
It’s been absolutely amazing and also different to anything I’ve experienced before. It just seems like no idea is a stupid idea, Daniel Evans [Sheffield Theatres’ artistic director is staging the show] is really open to your ideas as an actor. Daniel is so brilliant because he was and is an actor, he tries really hard to make the process as actor-friendly as possible, it really counts and feels great.
What were your early thought on this classic musical?
The show is so obviously brilliant, the songs are wonderful to work on – sweeping melodies and lots of beautiful harmonies – and the characters are really interesting. It’s like a big massive journey because all our characters age 40 years during the piece, which is a whole new challenge.
The score must be very different vocally to some of the more modern shows you have starred in. Does your early work at Holland Park Opera and Buxton Opera House help your preparations?
The musical has a more classical, legit style, so I’m using my operatic voice more. Before I swayed into musical theatre, I did work in the ensemble of lots of operas, it was great fun being at Holland Park because it was such a cool venue and a lot of great singers get to perform there, that was really great.
You’ve just done a play at the Watermill, do you like to mix up the kind of projects you take on?
It’s strange really because I went to the Central School of Speech and Drama and didn’t even do a musical theatre course, so I’m a bit of a weird hybrid. The play at the Watermill was a really fantastic experience, I am hoping that will lead to other different projects and enhance my castability. It’s important to broaden my horizons.
I do find it difficult in the TV world though. It seems like if you have musicals on your CV, TV people can be very judgemental about that. They seem to think your performance will be too big, that you can’t do a naturalistic performance, it’s very short-sighted.
There have been a number of different versions of Show Boat since its Broadway opening back in 1927. How would you describe this production?
You’re right, there have been many different takes on Show Boat, different songs have been cut and scenes changed. Our production is a more modern take, it’s the one that was staged in America at the Goodspeed Opera House in 2011, it has a much smaller cast than you would imagine.
Often opera companies do the show and they have the luxury of a big ensemble. While we have 24 people in total, and I agree that’s still a large cast, it is a pared-down production. I think this approach makes the story slightly more authentic, a little more naturalistic. The creative team don’t want it to be a lot of people just standing and singing, the story is massively important.
Anything you can tell me about the set? I’ve heard rumours that designer Lez Brotherston has triumphed once again.
People have been blown away by the set as well, but I can’t give anything away except for the fact it does involve a boat!
Show Boat was a watershed event in musical theatre, do you feel that history in performing the show?
It’s incredible that it was the first time that black and white characters/actors held the stage together as equals, can you imagine how controversial that must have been at the time? But instead of being an outrage, it was a massive success. Then, after that, musical theatre went back to what it had been doing before and forgot about this new genre. It only really came back to it around 20 years later with Oklahoma!
Do the show’s themes still feel relevant?
Oh yes, it feels very contemporary, especially the storyline which is as relevant now as it was when the show opened. We still have these same issues and I think it will really resonate with current audiences at at time when potentially things are going backward. Show Boat is obviously a period piece, but it doesn’t feel old-fashioned.
You have said that you are staggered by the talent you are surrounded by, can you comment on some of your co-stars?
Daniel and the team have done an incredible job. There’s Sandra Marvin playing Queenie and you couldn’t get more perfect casting. She’s got the voice and the attitude, she’s just fantastic. And there are two amazing actors – Allan Corduner and Lucy Briers – playing my parents and the owners of the boat.
Rebecca Trehearn plays Julie, when she sings ‘Bill’ and ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’, she is just going to blow the roof off.
Had you worked with Michael Xavier before?
I worked with Michael for the first time last Christmas, we did some concerts together, but we had not actually acted opposite each other before. We’ve been skirting around each other, because I was in Phantom just after him. It felt like we were going to end up opposite each other eventually. He’s just brilliant, he’s got so many great ideas.
How do you like playing Magnolia? She’s a character that goes on quite a journey.
It’s fun, I start off aged 16. I feel like I’ve been here before, being Cosette in Les Misérables. For some reason it feels like the same kind of thing, the awakening of a young girl, I am revisiting those feelings again.
What’s quite modern about Magnolia, in a piece that focuses on a whole string of strong women, is that she doesn’t just fall in love and that’s it. When her man isn’t there, she has the resourcefulness to face life on her own, she’s quite modern in that way.
Do you think the production strikes the right balance between the epic history of the piece and the personal stories?
Definitely, audiences will be able to understand more about that period of time but through the characters and what happens to them.
And the ending?
I wouldn’t want to give anything away, all I can say is that I think it will leave the audience asking lots of questions, it’s not a Hollywood happy ending.
* Show Boat continues at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield until 23 January 2016.