The history of the modern musical began with Show Boat in 1927: a backstage musical, set aboard a theatrical boat that travelled the Mississippi putting on shows wherever they docked, that dared to tell a serious, moving story of a mixed marriage (then illegal), and another that runs aground in the husband's gambling habits. It showed that musicals could be both provocative and challenging, and feature songs that pushed the action forward instead of just decorating it.
The heartfelt emotion in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's score is still overwhelming today, and is drenched in feeling and gorgeous melodies. And in this new glorious new production, deservedly transferred from Sheffield's Crucible Theatre where it premiered last Christmas, it is rendered with immense power and vocal heft by a cast that features such stunning singers as Gina Beck, Rebecca Trehearn, Chris Peluso, Sandra Marvin and Emmanuel Kojo, that make songs like Why Do I Love You, Only Make Believe, Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun' and Ol Man River resonate to the rafters and the pit of their souls and ours.
My companion wept through 'Bill', rendered with heartbreaking power by Trehearn; but the songs are also superbly anchored by director Daniel Evans in the unfolding, kaleidoscopic drama of the piece, that is given a thrilling dramatic momentum here. Too often, productions of this show could be re-dubbed Slow Boat; but not here.
This new version of the show — first produced at Godspeed Opera House in Connecticut — has abbreviated some of the longeurs in the script, but also retained all of its glories, to feel simultaneously expansive yet intimate.
The wrap-around thrust stage of Sheffield's Crucible is ideally matched here in the New London, where Lez Brotherston's set offers a 3D version of the boat that advances to the audience like a three-tiered wedding cake. It's stunning to look at; and Evans's production populates it with life and movement, courtesy of choreographer Alistair David's stunning dances.
It's a miracle of a production for a miracle of a show. Bravo!
"This is an evening that radiates not only immense talent across the board but also supreme confidence in its material."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Daniel Evans’s revival has steered this much-loved 1927 show smoothly into the modern age."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"90 years on Show Boat is still a knockout."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard