Angela Renee Simpson
Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat set the blueprint for the modern American musical when it was originally produced in 1927.
A sprawling epic story of showbiz folk set in Mississippi and Chicago between 1887 and 1910, it makes a good choice for the first fully staged musical at the Royal Albert Hall, where it floats triumphantly in Francesca Zambello’s buoyant in-the-round production.
Using the version of the musical used in Hal Prince’s celebrated 1994 Broadway staging, Zambello successfully colonizes the vast space of the venue, with performers running up and down the gangways and plenty of business going on all around the stage. Arthur Pita’s choreography lends much pizzazz to proceedings, while Sue Wilmington’s gorgeous costumes add plenty of colour.
In Peter J. Davison’s spectacular design, the shell of the paddle-steamer show boat Cotton Blossom is suspended from the ceiling, while the wooden stage below suggests the deck of the boat (with the excellent Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by David Charles Abell, beyond the bows), and the Mississippi river is represented by the floor space around the stage. For the Chicago nightclub scenes, there is a grand staircase with neon-lit signs flashing above.
The narrative is based around the triumphs and setbacks of the troupe of actors aboard a floating theatre on the Mississippi managed by the ebullient Captain Andy Hawkes and his sour-faced wife Parthy. They include the song-and-dance comedy duo Frank Schultz and Ellie May Chipley, and the husband-and-wife romantic leads Steve Baker and Julie Laverne.
When the latter have to leave suddenly after the local sheriff tries to enforce the law against inter-racial marriages, the Hawkes’ young daughter Magnolia (or Nola) takes over with the man she has just fallen in love with, the charming but unreliable ‘river gambler’ Gaylord Ravenal. Later we follow the characters to Chicago as they experience ups and downs in both their personal and professional lives, including marriage, childbirth, separation, financial disaster and showbiz success.
The great thing about Show Boat is that it’s genuine musical theatre, where the melodic brilliance of Kern’s score is matched by Hammerstein’s great lyrical and dramatic skills, proving that a stage musical can deal with serious themes while remaining entertaining.
Although its treatment of racism can now seem naive and its portrayal of African-Americans patronising, the show is a real attempt to give a sympathetic account of the hardships and discrimination faced by blacks in the Deep South at that time. It also covers topics such as gambling, alcoholism, debt, divorce and single motherhood, thus paving the way for musicals to examine social problems.
Among many other things, it’s also a backstage musical in which, despite various trials and tribulations, the show must always go on, a metaphor for life itself. Or, rather more poetically, as sung in that classic expression of stoical survival by the Negro stevedore Joe, ‘But ol’ man river, He jess’keeps rollin’ along!’ – Time itself, like the Mississippi River, never stops come what may.
Elena Shaddow gives a fine vocal and acting performance as Nola, showing her change from an innocent girl full of hope to a mature independent woman who is able to cope with great sadness, while John Owen Jones is not raffish enough as Ravenal but has a mellifluous tenor voice. The outstanding Rebecca Thornhill is genuinely touching in the torch-singer role of Julie, and Emma Dodd is amusingly upbeat as the energetic Ellie.
Angela Renee Simpson makes a big impact as the warm-hearted Cotton Blossom‘s cook Queenie, especially in the doom-laden song Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’, and as her husband Joe, Mark Coles’s dignified and moving delivery of ‘Ol’ Man River’ brings the house down.