Once upon a time, when the Livent revival of Show Boat was running in various cities in the US and Canada and the Livent brand was still untainted by The Unpleasantness surrounding Darth Grabinsky, I planned a vacation around seeing it – in Chicago, in January, I think 19 years ago this week. It wasn’t perfect, but it was worth the trip – if for no other reason that I’ve never, since, seen a commercial production of a musical with 70-odd actors on the stage and 30 musicians in the pit. I wondered at the time how the numbers could add up – the theatre, the night I saw it, was far from full – and Mr. Drabinsky’s complicated legal history since then, and the various arrest warrants against him that are apparently still outstanding in the US, rather suggest that they didn’t.
The thing is, Show Boat, more than nearly any other classic American musical, demands to be done big. It’s an enormous show with a (justly) celebrated score, it has a large cast of central characters, it takes place in multiple locations, the plot spans four decades, and audiences expect to see the Cotton Blossom – the Show Boat of the title – on the stage in front of them. In this show, more than many, there are certain requirements that are very difficult to work around.
Or so you’d think. Daniel Evans’s revival, playing for another week and a half at the Sheffield Crucible, has a cast of 24 and a band of 11 – large for a regional theatre in this country, but tiny in terms of the resources usually thrown at a production of this particular show. In terms of performers/musicians, it’s more or less exactly one-third the size of the production I saw in Chicago. And it’s glorious. It’s based on the text used in a production at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in 2011 (Show Boat’s production history could form the basis of a doctoral thesis – it’s far too complicated to explore fully here, because it’s one of those shows that seems to undergo some kind of revision with each successive revival), and it sits beautifully in the roughly 1000-seat Crucible.
Much of the show, in fact, is played right in the audience’s laps. The Crucible has a thrust stage; in Les Brotherston’s evocative bleached-wood set, a sunken playing area is surrounded by wooden boardwalks, and the Cotton Blossom, seen front-on, enters from the rear of the stage. Aside from the boat itself, and the Trocadero stage in Act Two, there are few major set-pieces apart from furniture (and, in the second half, evocative projections onto the back wall). It’s an impressive set but not an epic spectacle; the set pushes the scenes and musical numbers halfway down the thrust stage, lending them an immediacy and an intimacy that is the opposite of what you get when the show is staged behind a proscenium arch. This production is far more a character study than a sweeping panorama; you don’t get the spectacle or the string section or the huge chorus, but the gains outweigh the losses, for me at least. The performances are glorious – all of them, with special mentions for Gina Beck’s thrillingly-sung Magnolia and Emmanuel Kojo’s strong, dignified Joe – and the material somehow gains in power from being seen in a relatively intimate setting. The miscegenation scene is always moving, but it isn’t always this moving; Rebecca Trehearn’s Julie is another superb performance, but part of the scene’s added power in this production comes simply from the fact that you can see right into her eyes in the moment she’s forced to admit she’s been passing as white.
In terms of the text, the second act is a little more problematic. Again, it’s beautifully staged and performed here, but the second act of Show Boat was always weaker than the first – it covers a much longer timespan, it’s far more episodic in structure than the first half, a number of key twists in the plot rely on unlikely coincidences, and the ending is abrupt. Evans and his cast finesse it very well, but the ending of the show, in particular, feels rushed. Magnolia and Ravenal’s love story – arguably the show’s biggest plot strand – always feels as if there are at least a couple of scenes missing in the second half of Act Two, and that’s more the case than ever here; Michael Xavier’s Ravenal, in particular, is short-changed by this particular version of the script. There’s no number for Magnolia and Ravenal’s daughter Kim in the final scene, and it’s missed; there’s room in this version of the show for a little bit more material in Act Two, and that particular cut is a cut too far. In terms of cuts/additions to the score, other characters fare better. Queenie’s haunting “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun'” – cut against Jerome Kern’s wishes from the original 1927 production but present in a lot of the show’s underscoring and heard prominently in the overture – is a welcome addition, and Sandra Marvin sings it movingly; I’m not sure the second act needs “Hey Feller” and “Ah Still Suits Me”, but Marvin and Kojo are so good that more time with them is welcome. The most famous numbers – “Only Make Believe”, “Old Man River”, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”, “Bill” etc – are of course all present and correct, and “Why Do I Love You?”, thank God, is not uncomfortably handed off to the dour Parthy as a solo, as it was in the Livent production. Yes, a bigger orchestra would have been nice – but in a venue this size, that was never going to happen.
As for the thorniest issue regarding Show Boat’s script and score, this production treads a very careful line. In the opening chorus, “coloured folk” work on the Mississippi; the N-word is heard only as a term of abuse from the more bigoted white characters. In 2016, there’s no context for that word that isn’t shocking; here, it’s used sparingly, and for maximum impact. The choice pays off in this production’s riveting account of the miscegenation scene; in it, the N-word goes off like a bomb, in a way that it possibly wouldn’t if you’d already heard it sung twenty times by the chorus in the opening number.
And while I do have some quibbles with the material this version of the show chooses to include/omit in the second act, they don’t diminish Daniel Evans’s great achievement here: in terms of pure entertainment, this is as fine a Show Boat as you could hope to see, even if it doesn’t have a huge chorus or a big string section. And not only is it a terrific production, the top-price ticket for the matinee I attended was £26 – between half and one-third of what you’d expect to pay these days for a big musical in the West End, and less than the cost of most tickets for musicals at the half-price booth in Leicester Square. It’s running another week and a half, and there are still a few tickets left. It’s still only January, but this is probably as good a musical revival as you’ll see all year.