Show Boat – New London Theatre

Rebecca Trehearn (Julia La Verne) and Gina Beck (Magnolia Hawks) in Show Boat. Photo credit Johan Persson

Rebecca Trehearn and Gina Beck in Show Boat at the New London Theatre. Picture: Johan Persson

Show Boat continues at the New London Theatre.

Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩

The New London Theatre, as both Cats and War Horse demonstrated, lends itself to spectacle. Show Boat follows in that tradition with a fabulous three decker paddle steamer at its centre and sensitive use of the aisles to make the action more immersive. Full marks for Lez Brotherston’s set then.

Show Boat is a story with a lot of warmth and humanity and this production plays to all the piece’s narrative strengths, although Act I is slightly slow getting off the ground.

It’s a big cast ensemble piece and the dance numbers pulse with energy – and all that familiar Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern words and music – which makes this the sort of show which audiences love because they leave singing and feeling uplifted.

It’s also a piece which celebrates the power of love, along with the more sombre themes dealing with the white exploitation of black labour that continued for more than a century after the abolition of slavery.

Gina Beck gives a magnificent performance as Magnolia, daughter of the showboat owner, Captain Andy (Malcolm Sinclair).

Beck has a full opera voice and it really enhances the depth she finds in Magnolia, at first young and keen to act in her father’s troupe, in love, moving to Chicago, dealing with personal loss, returning to the theatre and eventually the mother of a grown-up daughter.

Sinclair makes his character kind, sensible, humane and often very funny, at his best when he’s sparring with his forthright, rather sad wife convincingly played by Lucy Briers.

When we see the two of them at last more or less in harmony, years later towards the end of the show, it is actually quite moving.

Dark-haired, deep-voiced Rebecca Trehearn, as Julie, provides a musical and visual contrast to Beck, especially when both their characters are challenged by circumstances. Trehearn’s well-judged rendering of ‘Bill’ in Act II is brittle and soulful – every inch a woman on the brink.

Emmanuel Kojo makes every bottom note resonate like a cello string, sings ‘Ol’ Man River’ with arresting poignancy, and the fact that he is far younger than Joe should really be actually doesn’t matter much. He plays well against Sandra Marvin’s fine Queenie too. She creates the right sort of ebullient personality and sings her wistful commentary numbers with verve.

Less successful is Chris Peluso as Gaylord Ravenal with whom Magnolia falls instantly, passionately and permanently in love. Peluso sings well enough but he doesn’t create enough charisma to make it clear why Magnolia is so smitten. In the event, of course, her sceptical, angry mother is right and Ravenal doesn’t turn out to be the best of husbands.

That’s a minor quibble, though, On the whole Daniel Evans’ Sheffield Theatres production is a vibrant, memorable, witty, evocative, stirring – and very tuneful – two and a half hours of theatre. The auditorium wasn’t full the night I saw it but it soon will be when word gets round.

Susan Elkin

Tickets for Show Boat are available HERE.

Readers may also be interested in:

Interview  – Gina Beck embraces the sweeping melodies of Show Boat

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