Review – Showboat – Sheffield Theater at the New London Theater

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I am sure that I saw the movie version of Show Boat ages ago, but walking into the production at the New London Theater last Saturday, I realized I pretty much had no idea of what I was about to see. I was pretty sure I’d be hearing “Old Man River,” but just what the heck was the show about? My memory failed me. I’d never had an opportunity to watch it on stage, so I was bound and determined to remedy that gap as soon as possible – I mean, Kern and Hammerstein, how awesome could it be? – and rushed to get in as early as possible. I was hoping for great songs, good dancing and a fine story, all enhanced by the magic that is the brilliant talent pool available to British stage productions. But in some ways I realized I’d also be looking at the show with my very modern eyes, and I had my suspicions that a play that actually looked at race in the US, written decades ago (indeed nearly 100 years ago!), was going to have a hard time passing muster. But, you know, good songs! And side balcony tickets for 19.50, so affordable!

Er, so maybe you don’t know/remember the plot, either? There’s a paddle boat, the Cotton Blossom, that sails down the Mississippi, doing shows for people in the various town (it’s the “Show Boat” of the title). It’s the Reconstruction, and blacks are treated like second class citizens … well, not really citizens at all, more like servants … and there’s all sorts of laws to keep them “in their place,” i.e. not to marry whites; and on top of this, they are pretty firmly kept apart socially, even in the entertainment arena. So … the big star of the Cotton Blossom is Julie La Verne (Rebecca Trehearne)- married to Steve Baker (Leo Roberts – always recognizable with his big sideburns). Julie is best friends with Mangolia Hawks (Gina Beck, whose voice soars like a skylark above everything in this show), who wants to act and has the talent for it ….

I mean, what am I supposed to say here? The plot has such an air of inevitability about it that writing about it seems silly. What I didn’t expect is that the second half would be set ten years ahead of the first act, and that the whole thing would end very curiously in the 20s, with the black people now retired and living in an apartment; and that somehow, the whole evening would end with people waltzing back on stage in the 1880s costumes from the beginning of the show. I was really gobsmacked by the ending, but it was because I couldn’t decide if it was more inevitable to see flapper dresses next to calico or to see Magnolia reunited with Gaylord (Chris Peluso) some twenty years after he’d walked out on her. Really? She never found anyone else she liked in all that time? Seriously? What the crap was this, Carousel meets Taming of the Shrew?

And … I mean, hey, has anyone noticed what a LOAD of non-Caucasian talent is on stage for this show? Aaand … did no one decide to maybe create some better roles for them? And Julie gets to be all noble and let her life be screwed up to help her friend? Talk about flaws you could sail a paddle boat through … this show had me pulling my hair out.

I also found my enthusiasm flattened by the noticably poor sound quality in our far side balcony seats (about ten away from the wall). I love how old fashioned musicals really use their songs to drive plot and character …. but I’m only guessing this would have been the case for Showboat, since I could only hear about 40% of the lyrics. I moved to the center balcony after the interval and, for the pleasure of having my knees jammed into the seat in front of me, I got only an extra 10% better sound. Hopefully they’ll improve that as the run goes on (the performance I saw was first preview), but … it seriously detracted from my experience.

Sadly, overall, I just wasn’t able to get into this show. There’s some good songs, but … I couldn’t find much to empathize with in any of the characters. The dance numbers mostly didn’t pull me in … I don’t know. I was ready for a good night out. What did I miss?

(This review is for the first preview performance which took place on April 9, 2015. It’ll probably be booking for a very long time.)

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