SHOWBOAT NEW LONDON THEATRE WC2

ROLLING ALONG, CARRYING ALL BEFORE IT

 
Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly – you gotta laugh and you gotta cry. And believe me, you won’t help loving this stunning, flawless, celebratory production. Swooping down from a five-star run in Sheffield, it’s the swansong of its Artistic Director Daniel Evans as he leaves to run Chichester. So anyone in Chichester worrying about its future blockbuster musicals can calm down. This is as good as their GYPSY, though Kern and Hammerstein’s 1927 musical is less focused on one huge star: its joys and dramas and legendary numbers spread across an exuberant ensemble.

 

 
They spread over decades, too: there’s an epic quality to this grandaddy of the modern storytelling musical, as forty years go rollin’ along over showpeople and lovers. In 1887 we meet them on the levée at Natchez, Mississippi, black workers toiling under bales of cotton, white performers primping up for Captain Andy’s vaudeville night aboard the Cotton Blossom. From there to 1927 fortunes rise and fall, roulette wheels spin, hearts are broken , babies born, war and Prohibition and the KKK and the long, cruel backwash of old slavery define an America struggling into the new age.

 

 
It is an epic indeed, operatic and cinematic (old monochrome footage flickers by, setting the moment without fuss). It is funny and melancholy by turns. From the moment when the great paddle-steamer first rolls towards us, and bent beneath baskets and bales “coloured folk work while the white folk play” , the combination of seriousness and spectacle dazzles. But never at the expense of storytelling: innocent Magnolia and dashing Gaylord lock eyes on the wharf, Julie and her man are banished for their negro blood, Frank and Ellie-Mae bicker and seek their stardom, and Captain Andy (Malcolm Sinclair) grows old under the sharp tongue and rigid principles of his puritan wife. Everything happens, every big number rising like a wave and ebbing into gentleness, for the joy of Hammerstein’s book is in the contrasts of mood. Emmanuel Kojo’s deep beautiful renderings of Old Man River flow through the show, sometimes creating an actual physical frisson; the love duets of Gina Beck and Chris Peluso as Nola and Gaylord melt heartbreakingly together (these are fine, fine voices). Alistair David’s choreography gives us joyful, stamping dances in thrilling ensemble numbers. A wrenching farewell from father to child is followed by an angry, sozzled, unforgettable rendering of “Just my Bill” from Rebecca Trehearne’s Julie; abandoned Nola’s growlingly low contralto “Fish gotta swim” is frivolously reworked by the Trocadero’s sharp pianist into a ragtime beat. A triumphant ‘after the ball” actually had the front rows singing along. Sandra Marvin’ s Queenie and her Joe entertainingly define long patient and impatient marriage. More than one star is born in this cast tonight.

 

 
Oh, and one line rings particularly in the mind as Andy, in the new ‘20s world of flapper dresses, admires the ladylike poise of his granddaughter Kim . “When she sits on a chair” he growls “She realizes that the human knee is just a joint and not an entertainment”. That sticks, because when Danny Collins’ Frank dances his superbly bizarre, mad-twisted-grasshopper legwork completely negates that statement. This man’s knees are a entertainment, one you won’t forget.
soon forget. Especially if you go again. Which lots of us, I suspect, will.

 
box office 0844 412 4654 to 7 January 2017
rating Five   5 Meece Rating

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