This is my third cruise down the Mississippi on Jerome Kern’s Show Boat, but only my second time inside the New London Theatre, the first being around 35 years ago, early in the run of Cats. That show and War Horse have put the venue out of commission for other work for the best part of three decades, but the first thing that struck me on entering was how much the West End needs it. Relatively modern, comfortable, plenty of leg room, excellent sight lines and a large thrust stage that the audience embraces. More than a little like Chichester in fact, which is good news for Daniel Evans, new artistic director there, who can hope to transfer musicals with minimal modifications. Evans directed this revival of the 1927 perennial at his old home, the Crucible Sheffield, also similar, and he surrounds the stage with a jetty towards which the glittering boat (designer Lez Brotherston) sails. The production is awash with colour and wonderful music and, bucking the modern trend for actors “who can sell a song” but little more, the singing is just superb. Michael Xavier has left since Sheffield, but Chris Peluso is no mean replacement, joining a top notch company that includes Emanuel Kojo, Malcolm Sinclair, Lucy Briers, Rebecca Trehearn, Gina Beck, Alex Young and Danny Collins. The show is a patchwork of comedy drama and romance and the music is a patchwork of styles – Vaudeville (After the Ball) Franz Lehár light operas (Only Make Believe) and Southern Blues (Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man). It is fascinating to listen to these elements coming together in the process of evolution that led to what we now call “Broadway”. Of course, pride of place goes to Kojo’s stirring rendition of Ol’ Man River, but, although Evans has the ensemble “tote dat barge, lif’ dat bale” all around the jetty, he can only go as far in highlighting racism and social injustice as the show allows him, which is not very far at all by modern standards. The quality of Kern’s music and the lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II stand the test of time, but Hammerstein’s book irritates more with every viewing. Working with a central plot line similar the that of his Carousel, which came around two decades later, he does not overcome the problem set by his source material – Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel – and too much is crammed into a disappointing second half, with the result that what should have been a moving climax fizzles away in a ripple of giggles. In the end, Show Boat comes to less than the sum of its magnificent parts, but it is a landmark of 20th Century theatre and every lover of musicals needs the chance to see it, if only once.
Performance date: 21 April 2016