In 1927, Jerome Kern shifted the shape of musical theatre from twee operetta to a tighter fusion of music with drama. He also designed Show Boat as a slap in the face to complacent audiences with its startling opening line ‘Niggers all work on the Mississippi’. In the Daniel Evans production which has arrived with bells and whistles and five-star accolades from Sheffield we have a version which is both polished and sanitized.

Strong start: the black ensemble sings the opening chorale while the white characters slump in the shadows – breathtaking, empowering, impactful. But then the confused book takes over and the black folks still tote cotton bales and make chicken ‘n biscuits while singing gospel and the white folks have the plot and the ballads. Later, by impossible coincidence after forty years, all the white characters mash up in the same music hall in Chicago battling addictions to gambling and drink with hoky grey hair extensions.  Meanwhile back on the barge, the gorgeous Sandra Marvin has morphed into Diane Abbott.

The show’s morality is dodgy and not entirely ironic: it’s ‘unacceptable’ in Mississippi for anyone with a drop of non-white blood to share a stage with white actors, but it’s perfectly OK for a middle-aged alcoholic gambler to bed and wed a sixteen-year-old girl.

So relax and enjoy the music: savour the elegance of 2014 Arts Ed graduate Emmanuel Kojo’s ‘Old Man River’ which is usually given to mature actors but here freshened with beauty and pain in a master stroke of casting: ‘I gets weary and sick of tryin’, I’m tired of livin’, and scared of dyin’ becomes revolutionary instead of resigned.

In a strong field, credit for ‘Best White Turn’ would be shared by Rebecca Trehearn as showgirl Julie Laverne, holding the audience spellbound in her rendition of ‘Bill’ before sacrificing her career to give Gina Beck, her equally glorious soprano shipmate, a crucial theatrical break.

New orchestrations by Dan DeLange electrify the score – and despite some muddy sound and diction and the fact Tom Brady’s fine band is walled up behind scenery, the music really lifts off time after time. Everyone’s pretty nifty with the footwork in Alastair David’s slick and original choreography but none more than Danny Collins whose rubber-limbed lindy hopping is hilarious as well as technically superb.



This review originally written for Londonist