Show Boat at New London Theatre
Expectations soar when a classic musical is relaunched, and there has certainly been great interest in the revival of Show Boat, one of the pioneering works of the genre. The musical caused controversy when it was first performed in 1927 due to its treatment of racial issues. In subsequent revivals it has been continually remodelled to fit the times, and this latest version tightens the action while retaining the meaty content that gives it an edge.
Spanning over several decades, the story begins with Captain Andy, the owner of the show-boat Cotton Blossom, and a lively group of actors preparing to perform. Under the supervision of Andy’s reluctant wife, Parthenia, and their young daughter Magnolia, an aspiring actress herself, everything goes smoothly until the arrival of wandering gambler Gaylord, whom Magnolia falls in love with. Set against the unsteady backdrop of racial segregation in 1880s Mississippi, questions of race become central when leading actress Julie is discriminated against for her mixed race background and must flee the show-boat to avoid further harm.
Beneath the glitz of the musical numbers and choreography there is the dark undertone of social tensions, but the serious themes do not weigh down the rhythm in any way. On the contrary, the musical is enriched by its desire to expose an unpleasant reality and it somehow succeeds in maintaining a lighthearted tone, often infused with humour, without downplaying the weighty material.
The stage is dominated by the show-boat itself, which stands high in all its glory. Adorned with lights and made with great attention to detail, it allows characters to stand on many different levels, utilising the space effectively. When the action moves to Chicago, the boat is replaced by flashy sign posts and black-and-white background footage of the bustling movement in the city.
The soundtrack transports the audience right into the time and place of the action and awakens sympathies for the characters’ struggles. Gina Beck, who plays Magnolia, wows with her powerful vocals and Chris Peluso, playing reckless Gaylord, is a worthy partner. Supporting roles and leads alike maintain the production’s very high quality and they are all deserving of praise, from Sandra Marvin’s fierce Queenie to Emmanuel Kojo’s charismatic Joe.
After all this time, Show Boat still has a special charm that carries it effortlessly across the years. Merging melancholy and joy, it has a taste of the epic while keeping its feet firmly on the ground.
Photo: Johan Persson
Show Boat is on at New London Theatre from 9th April 2016 until 7th January 2017. Buy your tickets here.
Watch an opening night trailer for the production here: