When I heard that Show Boat was going to be reviving in London’s West End, I was eager to see it. I was intrigued to see how such an early show would be transformed onto the stage today, in the midst of many other incredibly modern musicals playing at the moment. After hearing about the cast due to be involved in the show, I knew it was going to be unmissable. Names such as Rebecca Trehearn (Julie La Verne), Sandra Marvin (Queenie), both whom I saw in the production of City of Angels last year, and Gina Beck (Magnolia Hawks) take the female leads, whilst the rest of the cast are all of exceptional quality.
Much of the story takes place on the Mississippi show boat the Cotton Blossom. When the boat’s leading lady (Julie) and her husband have to hastily leave the business, Magnolia, the daughter of the boat’s captain takes the role alongside a recruited gambler (Gaylord Ravenal). The already love-stricken pair then marry and leave the show boat. Later we see how Gaylord’s gambling leads them into difficulties, and he leaves his wife and daughter to fend for themselves. The storyline could perhaps be considered rather ‘light’ during this day and age, however for it’s time, it was groundbreaking. This by no means makes the show outdated. Far from it in fact, many of the characters and narratives are as relatable today as they were when they were first conceived.
The first half of the show was slower paced, which for me made for a stronger storyline that was easier to digest. The second half moved very quickly. I was thankful that the two iconic songs Ol’ Man River and Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man reprised in the show, successfully linking it together in places where it could have been at risk of becoming a little disjointed.
I also found that the ending was quite abrupt and rather unexpected. When at the end, Gaylord returns to the Cotton Blossom and is reunited with his wife and daughter, I expected there to be a big, romantic reunion between Gaylord and Magnolia, but instead the ending focuses on the reunion between father and daughter. It seemed slightly controversial considering so much of the story had been around Magnolia and Gaylord’s relationship, particularly during the first act. We were left wondering what Magnolia’s reaction was going to be, seeing as her husband had just returned after disappearing for a number of years. Some of the story lines were a little lost at the end as well. Such as what became of Julie, for example.
Despite this, the show was filled with energy and exciting dance numbers, taking me right back to early 20th Century America. The whole cast were obviously thoroughly enjoying themselves, and the acting was first-class. Gina Beck and Chris Peluso gave a spine-tingling performance of You Are Love, and Tosh Wanogho-Maud, who played Joe in the performance that we saw, left me in a state of absolute wonderment during his rendition of Ol’ Man River.
I believed in every one of those characters and went with them on their emotional journeys. Show Boat is both truthful and relatable, it is a musical which does not try to hide the harsh reality of the racial tension which was still a large problem in America at the beginning of the 20th century. Even the set: an elaborate construction of a front-facing, triple decked ship, went from being glamours and classy during the performance parts of the show, to a slightly run down vessel when the lights went down. The contrast highlighted the hardship of the lives of the people that worked on the boat, and hinted that it wasn’t all the glitz and glamour that it initially appears.
This show was completely immersive and right from the beginning I felt that I was on the Cotton Blossom myself. The staging has been cleverly thought through so that the show is performed to all three sides of the auditorium at the New London Theatre, meaning that each seat is going to be a good one, and every audience member can be swept away in this heartfelt and emotional voyage of love, loss, and joy.
This show closes at the end of August, so don’t ‘miss the boat’, go and see it while you have the chance, and get ready for a really enjoyable, feel-good show that will leave you humming the tunes over and over for the duration of the night.