Review – Show Boat, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 2nd January 2016

Show BoatA dim and distant memory from my childhood is the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle playing an LP (that’s what they were called in those days) with highlights from Show Boat on one side and Roberta on the other. I remembered the tunes being, on the whole, pretty enjoyable. Pursuant to following up these memories, sometime in my 20s I discovered the album of Roberta (probably in Tower Records, remember that?) took it home, played it, hated it, and never played it again. However, I never got round to buying an album of Show Boat, and I guess the songs from that show left my conscious mind and settled somewhere in the back of my subconscious, waiting for an unlocking moment when I would finally get round to seeing a production of the show myself.

Cotton BlossomArtistic Director of the Crucible, Daniel Evans, is on his way south to taking up the reins at Chichester this summer. For his Sheffield Christmas musical swansong, he couldn’t have chosen a better production than Show Boat. Considered the first “modern” musical, it was adapted from Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel by no less than the renowned Jerome Kern and a still relatively young Oscar Hammerstein II. It was produced by the legendary Florenz Ziegfeld (of the Follies fame) and first hit the stage in 1927 with its significant multiracial cast and its, for the time, almost unique structure combining music, lyrics and libretto.

Frank and EllieThe show boat seems a quaint institution today, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in America they were at the heart of bringing entertainment to communities outside the big cities. Ferber’s novel follows three generations of women through the history of running and working on one of these vessels. The musical adaptation concentrates less on the characterisation of the women and more on general life aboard the show boat, specifically the relationship between Magnolia and Gaylord from their hopeful beginnings to their somewhat desolate conclusion.

Rebecca TrehearnCaptain Andy runs the Cotton Blossom, a show boat that chugs up and down the Mississippi, full of actors, singers and dancers, backstage hands, kitchen staff and boat mechanics. Andy is married to the redoubtable Parthenia, and their daughter Magnolia is entranced by the glamour of life on board. She’s also entranced with handsome gambler Gaylord Ravenal (you have to admit, these names are priceless today). Two of the boat’s leading performers, Julie and Steve, are charged with miscegenation, as it was illegal for a white man and a black woman to marry. Even though they evade the law, they are forced to leave the boat, as it was not acceptable for black people to appear before the white segregated audience. In retrospect it’s easy to see why this was such a ground-breaking show! Magnolia and Gaylord take Julie and Steve’s place, and eventually get married. They move to Chicago and have a daughter, Kim; but Gaylord’s gambling crashes out of control and, unable to support his family, he moves out. And I’ll leave the plot synopsis there because if you haven’t seen it yet, I don’t want to ruin it for you!

Michael XavierI must draw your attention, gentle reader, to the fact that this is one of those edgy experiences in the theatre where some characters use the N word. It’s amazing the impact it can have on an audience. When Scout innocently blurted it out in To Kill a Mockingbird, we all winced. Its usage in Show Boat is possibly even more uncomfortable, as it both accompanies the mindless mistreatment of the black dock workers as well as the legal harassment of Steve and Julie. Still, IMHO, it’s better to include it than to sanitise the show, and, to be honest, you get great theatrical intensity out of it. Incidentally, why is it acceptable to use the N word on stage like this but that famous Agatha Christie book has now been substantially amended to And Then There Were None? I’m merely wondering about the inconsistency.

Gina BeckEnough of that, what about the score? It’s really one of history’s most rewarding musicals from a purely musical point of view. As the show started to unwrap my subconscious memories of the Dowager Mrs C singing along whilst attending to chores, I was amazed to realise how many superb and well-known songs are performed in this show. Ol’ Man River, of course, was no surprise – one of the most stirring, moving and simply beautiful songs ever to come out of musical theatre. But I couldn’t believe my ears when, just a little way into the show Gaylord and Magnolia sing Only Make Believe. It was like a sudden blast from the past hitting my auditory nerves. It’s such a sweet and touching song, and I don’t think I’ve heard it since maybe before I was a teenager. I had to fight back the urge to sing along, because all the words came to me instantly. Of course, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man is an absolute classic, and the show demonstrates how versatile it is by the number of different styles and arrangements that suit it perfectly. Bill is another sweet song that the Dowager used to perform at the drop of a hat – and is a complete show-stopper in this production. Originally written by Kern with P G Wodehouse in 1917, the words were later adapted by Hammerstein. And another old favourite suddenly appeared, that I had no idea was from this show – After The Ball. I would have put money on that being a Noel Coward song. Actually, neither is correct. It was written by Charles K Harris in 1892, and is simply borrowed for use in Show Boat, as an example of a typical type of song that might have been sung in that era. Captain Andy encourages us, the audience, to sing along – although he doesn’t actually mean us, he means the audience who were watching Magnolia perform that song in the Trocadero on that New Year’s Eve. Nevertheless, I needed no second bidding and gave it my all, much to the embarrassment of Mrs Chrisparkle. I couldn’t help it. As Cat Stevens once said, I can’t keep it in, I just gotta let it out.

Lucy BriersThe production is a credit to everyone involved. When you find out the sets are by Lez Brotherston, you know they are going to be superb – and they are. David White’s band produce a fantastic sound from their little subterranean cubbyhole. Alistair David’s choreography is fresh and lively, using the maximum space that the Crucible can allow and incorporating many different styles. And the amazing cast, studded with people who are absolutely at the top of their game, perform with true commitment and sincerity, producing some scenes of real raw emotion, as well as musical delight.

Emmanuel KojoIn fact I was surprised – and excited – to see so many names in the cast whose work I’ve been lucky enough to see before and have really enjoyed. Gina Beck, whom I last saw when she was pouring me a drink at the cabaret tables in the excellent Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, brings youthful enthusiasm to the young Magnolia, and dignified regret and grim determination to the sadder Magnolia of later years. She has a wonderful purity to her voice, and gives a very personal expression to all her songs. It’s a great performance. She’s matched, in the marriage stakes at least, by the fantastic Michael Xavier, who we last saw giving it large as Cornelius in the Curve’s Hello Dolly. He cuts a dashing figure as the young Gaylord – and I found his portrayal of the pitifully washed-up older man very moving. Of course, he sings with amazing resonance and clarity, and the two perform together brilliantly.

Allan CordunerEveryone who goes to see Show Boat will be looking forward to – and have high expectations of – the performance of Ol’ Man River. So no pressure there! It falls to Emmanuel Kojo to take the part of Joe, whom we last saw as one of the Scottsboro Boys, and he takes to it like the proverbial duck to water. Tremendous raw emotion, a quiet, solid dignity, highly believable as an ordinary, hard-working man with no prospect of ever bettering himself, but strangely secure in his own position. You might think that the show will centre on this song, but in fact it comes quite early on, and, although there are a couple of reprises, it’s not the essence of the show in the way that you might suspect. Joe has his Queenie, the Cotton Blossom’s cook, played by the powerful Sandra Marvin, whom we last saw dishing it out as the devious Mama Morton in Chicago. Ms Marvin gives us the moving Mis’ry’s Coming Aroun’, the uplifting Hey Feller, and, with Mr Kojo, the two of them combine with great humour and a lightness of touch for the utterly charming I Still Suits Me – think of a 1920s Mississippi version of Alesha Dixon’s The Boy Does Nothing. If the likes of Ellie and Frank are on the way up in this world, and Magnolia and Gaylord are on the way down, Joe and Queenie represent a constant level; forever working hard to stay in the same place, rather like the incessant flow of the ol’ man river itself, they just keep rolling along.

Alex Young and Danny CollinsAlex Young (brilliant in both last year’s Anything Goes and the touring High Society a few years ago gives another chirpy and cute performance as Ellie, the rising star, and she is matched by the brilliant Danny Collins, a fantastic dancer whose performances we have enjoyed both as part of Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty company and Drew McOnie’s Drunk, here giving us his full stagey showdance routines. Allan Corduner is a bluff and avuncular Captain Andy, and Lucy Briers perfect as the grim and grumpy Parthy, seriously channelling what Captain Andy calls her “mean disposition”. We saw her recently equally grim and grumpy in the Young Chekhov season at Chichester, and before that in the Royal and Derngate’s Ayckbourn season back in 2009. I’d love to see her play a cheerful role for a change! I also really enjoyed the performances of Rebecca Trehearn as Julie and Bob Harms as Steve (and many other characters) – Mr Harms is getting to be a bit of a regular in Sheffield, and that can only be A Good Thing. I’m not going to mention everyone, but the entire cast get behind the show with such attack and talent that the show whizzes past in the blink of an eye.

Sandra Marvin and Emmanuel KojoAnother great Christmas Crucible production. I waited many years finally to see Show Boat on stage and it was well worth the wait! It’s on till 23rd January so you still have time to jump aboard the Cotton Blossom. My only hope now is that Daniel Evans’ successor will be equally as adept at staging these great musicals – and that Mr Evans will also have the opportunity to bring his own aptitude for musicals to the Chichester programme; that would be a win-win!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Charing Cross Theatre, 10th November 2014

Jacques Brel is Alive and WellI think I’d heard of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” before I’d actually heard of Jacques Brel himself. The show first saw the light of day in 1968, off-Broadway, and gained something of a cult status as it clocked up a four year run in its initial production, plus the many other international versions that followed. But through my early years the work of M. Brel remained something of a mystery to me. Then about fifteen years ago my friend the Lord Liverpool introduced me to the album “Scott Walker sings Jacques Brel” and particularly the song Jacky, which famously was banned by the BBC because of its lyrics – you won’t want me to reprint them here. Suffice to say, I loved it – and the rest of the album, with my other favourite being the savage Next – more of which later.

Gina BeckThe album also features If You Go Away, but to be honest I always preferred Terry Jacks’ 1974 version, his follow up hit to “Seasons in the Sun”, (always enough to reduce a grown man to a deluge of tears), and which was itself an adaptation of Brel’s Le Moribond. But I realise now that in comparison to the originals, these Scott Walker renditions are really overblown, over-orchestrated and over-fussy. So when I saw that “Jacques Brel IAAWALIP” was having a revival at the Charing Cross Theatre I thought it was a perfect opportunity finally to acquaint myself with this cult show. However, I knew that it wouldn’t be Mrs Chrisparkle’s thing. If I’d said to her, “would you like to see a show based on the songs of a Belgian who died in 1978” she would have looked at me more than askance. But my friend HRH the Crown Prince of Bedford is another Brelhead, and so it was that he and I went to see the show last Monday night.

Daniel BoysI’d never been to the Charing Cross Theatre before. When I was growing up it was the Players Theatre Club, having been home to the original production of Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend in the 1950s. If my memory serves me right, in the 1970s members of the Players Theatre used to perform on the BBC’s Good Old Days programme (all together in your best Leonard Sachs voice: Once again, Good Evening, Ladies and Gentlemen!) But today it is its own little theatre in its own right, seating 250 at a push, and with a rather charming atmosphere, helped or hindered (you decide) by the regular rumblings of trains passing overhead, and with a comfortable bar/restaurant offering an excellent and filling pre-theatre dinner at a much cheaper price than is decent for such a Central London location.

Jacques BrelTo say the show has a simple structure would be something of an understatement. If, like me, you were expecting some kind of narrative, or some theme to the evening, you might be in for a disappointment. I had thought it would be a kind of Side By Side By Brel, with some Ned Sherrin style bonhomie taking us through his career and illustrating it with choice examples of his work. Alternatively, it might have been an early example of the Mamma Mia genre, where you have an original plot but into which the Brel numbers would have dovetailed perfectly. But it’s neither. You simply have a running order of 28 songs, performed by the cast of four, accompanied by Dean Austin’s splendid five piece band nicely integrated with the action, scattered around the set, which resembles a modest cabaret club. The cabaret feels spills out into the auditorium in fact, as the usual first few rows have been taken out and replaced with five cabaret tables, each with four chairs. His Majesty and I sat at one of these and I have to say that, although you really have to look up high, our proximity to some of the action was breathtaking. At times it was as though we were on the stage with them, or they were performing promenade style around us – Miss Gina Beck even poured us out a glass of water. There’s no particularly rhyme or reason to the sequence of the songs that I could make out, no attempt to create a real narrative strand; but that’s not a problem as each song is its own mini masterpiece of a drama, and there are plenty of opportunities for the cast to excel both musically and dramatically.

Eve PolycarpouThe structure of the show means that its success or failure lies completely with the quality of the songs and performances; and for me I can definitely say it was a resounding success throughout. The songs that I recognised, I loved; and those that I didn’t know were, almost without exception, exciting discoveries. The cast are a superb combination of young, pure and idealistic (Gina Beck and Daniel Boys – brilliant in last year’s High Society) and the more mature and experienced (Eve Polycarpou and David Burt – an excellent gangster in Kiss Me Kate and hilarious in Hamlet the Musical), giving a nice sense of balance to the production. The evening begins with Eve singing Le Diable (Ça va) in both French and English, creating a very moody and melancholic atmosphere, which leads into If We Only Have Love and the sumptuous Alone. The English lyrics, by the way, were written by Eric Blau and Mort Schuman who together created the original production of the show. Other first half highlights included a very original presentation of Jacky by David, with a laid back, reflective, self-satisfied first verse, which then gains triumphant self-confidence as the song progresses. David also performed a very emotional rendition of Fanette which I really loved; and the whole company joined together for The Desperate Ones – again with the performers right up close to us you could see their unflinching commitment to what they were doing which somehow made it even moving; these Brel songs can be very raw as you witness the passion and pain in the performers’ concentration. There was also a very perky performance of Timid Frieda by Gina and then David took us into the interval with a rousingly angry (as is traditional) version of Amsterdam.

David BurtAct Two began with the whole company performing Madeleine (HRH’s favourite) – a tune that I now realise was shamelessly ripped off in the song Veronique in the 1970s musical On The Twentieth Century. Act Two continued with some spectacular performances including Eve singing Ne me quitte pas in French, sat on the edge of the stage with her guitar, right in front of us – a right goose-bumps moment if ever there was one; Daniel and David doing a very funny version of Middle Class (during which David cheersed me with his champagne glass; Gina singing a very moving Old Folks, David providing a hilarious and immaculately timed Funeral Tango, Daniel performing a very touching Song For Old Lovers and the whole company presenting a highly disturbing and effectively staged Next (Au Suivant), the least romantic song about sex that you could imagine. There is some nice subtle updating going on with a few of the numbers, with Iraq and Afghanistan taking their place and even Nigel Farage muscles in on the action at one point.

Monsieur BrelI really enjoyed the show, but what was the reaction of a true Brel aficionado? The Crown Prince was extremely impressed with it, and was in fact on tippy-toe point of leading an ovation when a sudden wave of self-consciousness overtook him, which he regretted all the way back to the station. Despite the fact that it is now 36 years since Jacques Brel literally was alive and well and living in Paris, the show gives us another opportunity to appreciate his extraordinary contribution to 20th century music and is a fitting and lovingly performed tribute to one helluva character. The show is on until 22nd November and if you like your musical entertainment to be francophone and with a bit of bite, I can’t think of anything better.