For a musical written in 1927 Show Boat thrums with modern themes: racism, addiction, social division – they’re all just below the surface of Oscar Hammerstein’s story, and in this heartfelt production often front and centre. The good news is that this is a vessel that can carry a serious message in the hold and still give everyone on board a high old time.
Hammerstein and composer Jerome Kern adapted the show from a novel and it shows: how many other musicals follow their characters over four decades? Like Ol’ Man River itself the plot keeps rolling along, as we chart the fortunes of a floating theatre and its performers in post-Civil War Mississippi.
The cast of Show Boat
Captain Andy (Malcolm Sinclair) commands the Cotton Blossom while his wonderfully sour wife (Lucy Briers) commands him in all things. The set design presents us with a gloriously balustraded paddle steamer, with in the foreground a dockside where black stevedores heave cotton bales in the heat. As the “coloured folks” toil, we never forget that the romantic ups and downs of the lead characters are in comparison, as it were, first-world problems.
Love at first sight, love across the racial divide, love denied – while these play out we get cracking songs and choreography that sends us out skipping. Ol Man River is the famous number (performed stirringly here by Emmanuel Kojo as Joe) but the real show-boat-stopper is Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, one of the simplest, sweetest tunes Kern wrote and in its various incarnations, the emotional heart of the show.
The novelistic sweep of the story has been slightly telescoped in this adaptation, which comes to the West End from the Crucible in Sheffield. But the flair and flourish of the production tide us over any glitches and in the end it’s clear why virtually no stage musical has endured as long.