Monday, 18 January 2016

'Showboat' at The Crucible, Sheffield

I've never seen 'Showboat' before, either on stage or the films and even though I know one song from the show (let's face it, we *all* know that song) I've never quite grasped the connotations. It's Daniel Evans' last season at The Crucible - and he directed this production - so it was worth hopping on a train and heading to wintry Sheffield for the matinee performance full of oldies and groups of women on a girls' afternoon out.

I didn't really know what to expect but I was sort of expecting Hollywood and Broadway glamour and glitz and, while that's exactly what we got, we also got racism, alcoholism, gambling addiction, an inter-generational story and sacrifice. The business that is show doesn't live in it's own safe little world, it's part of the world we all live in with smiles plastered on the faces.

The show moves along at a good pace, never dwelling on anything for too long. It opens on the docks with bales of cotton being moved before the show boat arrives and we meet the cast of the show in all their teasing glamour, performing scraps of the play to entice in paying customers. We get a glorious version of 'Old Man River' with the stevedore's loading cargo, and, in the end, helping each other, which was quite touching. We then learn from a jealous lover who reports her to the sheriff, that Julie, the star of the show boat is considered black since her mother was black. Her husband cuts her hand and drinks her blood so that he now has 'black blood' in him. This gives Magnolia, the daughter of the captain and Julie's great friend, her big chance to be a riverboat star.  By a strange coincidence, her leading man turns out to be the gambler she'd met earlier on the docks and they fall in love and get married.

The second half moves the story along so that Magnolia and Gaylord (yes, that's his name) are now in Chicago where Gay's gambling and drinking are becoming a problem but they still send their daughter to the convent school. Gaylord leaves and one of the turns from the show boat, Ellie and Frank, turn up to view an apartment that Magnolia is having to leave and they get her an audition at the theatre where Julie works. She's down on her luck, husband long gone and seeking happiness in the bottom of a glass. She hears Magnolia sing and leaves recommending that Magnolia is given the star role. Again, Julie's sacrifice is good for Magnolia without her knowing. Years pass and we're back on the boat again  when Gay turns up, is reunited with Magnolia and sees his grown up daughter. Is it happy ever after? Who knows...

I was very surprised at the power of this musical, it direct confrontation with racism and the dangers of drink and gambling. I've only ever heard 'Old Man River' on variety shows in the 70s, never seen it in context and it's an incredibly powerful song with the men carrying bales of cotton, collapsing with the weight of the bales and sheer weariness while the river keep on flowing. It was a great performance from Emmanuel Kojo as Joe, leading the other lads in a powerful rendition of the song. It got - and deserved - a great ovation from the audience.

Two other performances deserve mention, firstly Rebecca Trehearn as Julie who can pass as white and does so until she's unmasked. She gave a lovely performance as Magnolia's great friend in the first half and a powerful performance as the drunken lush singer in the second half. She has a great voice, clear and powerful but very well controlled. I saw her a couple of years ago in 'City of Angels' at the Donmar and, if anything, her voice is even better.

In the same Donmar production I also saw Sandra Marvin who played Queenie, Joe's wife. I also saw her as singer/dancer in Kate Bush's 'Before The Dawn' show at Hammersmith a couple of years ago. She was great as the queen of the boat, feeding and controlling the men and capturing Joe as her husband. It was lovely to see them, after the passing of the years, still together at the end of the show, keeping things real and giving us the message about what's important in life. Sandra has a powerful voice and a commanding stage presence and I want to see more of her.

The stars of the show are Gina Beck as Magnolia and Michael Xavier as Gaylord. Gina has a great voice and was great as our heroine, easily getting the audience on her side and wanting her marriage to work. She gets some great songs which is more than Michael got. It's an odd role for the male lead - he gets one song near the start and all the others are either duets or ensemble pieces. Michael is a singer and has a great voice but this show doesn't really let him rip. I've seen him in 'Into The Woods' and 'The Pyjama Game' and know he can sing the socks off almost anything.

All in all, this was a great production that does all the cast proud. Colourful, fast-paced and well acted and sung - with some really good voices. I don't know if there any plans for it to go on tour or transfer to London but it should do - people should see this production. I'm pleased I did.

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