Review: Show Boat, Sheffield Crucible

Alex Young as Ellie May Chipley and Danny Collins as Frank Schultz in Show Boat.
Alex Young as Ellie May Chipley and Danny Collins as Frank Schultz in Show Boat.
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In 2016 Daniel Evans will be moving on. The artistic director of Sheffield Theatres is heading south.

Part of his legacy is the tradition of a big, bold musical at Christmas time and an audience that is willing to trust the theatre and go along with sometimes challenging decisions: perfectly manifest in Evans’ most unlikely choice of a Christmas show yet – Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat. Recognised as one of the last century’s defining musicals, the racial politics here are front and centre. Evans opens with the whole company defiantly, silently, standing in a bold tableau, before they break into two very obvious groups: black and white. Show Boat tells the story of Captain Andy Hawks’ boat which sails the Mississippi, bringing songs and productions to towns along the way. The score includes Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man and the iconic Ol’ Man River and I find it hard to believe you will ever hear this score sung with more skill, depth and emotion than you will in this production. Emmanuel Kojo’s performance as Joe is wrenched from the pit of his soul. His rendition of Ol’ Man River is epic and appears to sweep through time, pulling history along in its wake. It’s stunning. Likewise the vocal performances of Gina Beck as Magnolia Hawks and Michael Xavier as Gaylord Ravenal are heart-tuggingly brilliant and soaring.

The second episodic act is troublesome. It feels at times like you’re watching a series of punchlines to first act set-ups and whenever projections are used to propel you through the years via newspaper headlines, it always feels like shorthand storytelling. Even with that, it is the performances that will live long in the memory: they really are genuinely extraordinary in this sumptuous production.

Nick Ahad

To January 23.