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This gorgeous musical theatre classic steams into the West End after a successful mooring in Sheffield.
It’s a cliché to say it, butthey really don’t make ’em like this anymore: this marvellous production of one of the all-time great musicals – already festooned in praise from a run at the resurgent Sheffield Crucible – feels like a strangely brave choice to put in the West End of 2016.
It’s just so far away from what you expect from a big commercial show these days – no reheated pop songs, no glib pop culture references, no star names, no bombastic special effects, not much in the way of lavish set pieces and the plot – especially in the first half – meanders as gently as the Mississippi River.
All those things are great when done right. But Daniel Evans’s production of Jerome Kerr and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1927 masterpiece doesn’t need any of them. The first half, set on Captain Andy Hawks’s titular vessel – which plies the Mississippi staging theatrical entertainments for riverside towns – feels like a goodbye to one era in America’s history – rural, slow-paced, Southern, disconcertingly marked by segregation of the boat’s black and white crew.
The second half, set in Chicago on the cusp of the twentieth century, is a step into America’s future: urban, desegregated, faster paced and less friendly. The drifting narrative of the first half homes in on Gina Beck’s Magnolia Hawks – Andy’s sweet-natured daughter – as she tries to forge a new life in the Windy City with her incorrigible beau Gaylord (no sniggering).
It’s an engaging story, eventually, but really the charm of ‘Show Boat’ is more textural than narrative: the magic comes from the swelling, elegant score given the full orchestral treatment, the cast’s precise, powerful voices, the sense of time’s arrow hurtling by, and the remarkable song that embodies this – ‘Ol’ Man River’, the musical’s mournful motif, given a titanic airing by Emmanuel Kojo’s Joe.
‘Show Boat’ is booking until January, and I’d be delighted if it makes it. But this stirring, expensive revival of the first great American musical – as profound as it is sumptuous – feels so gloriously out of step with the rest of the West End that I wouldn’t bet on it going the distance. See it while you can, and if I’m wrong, see it again.