Here’s a confession for you. I didn’t really know “Show Boat” before I saw this production in London. Of course I knew it was an old classic show; this is my jam after all. And of course I knew the song “Bill” was from it, because I have everything Audra McDonald ever sang in my DNA (it’s on her album How Glory Goes). And of course I knew it was about an acting troupe on a boat and they put on shows because I read the title. But really, I never saw it before, and never listened to non-Audra recordings of the music. I’m sure I knew at one point that both “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Old Man River”, super famous songs that I’m sure all of you are familiar with, are also in this show; I guess I just forgot. What an idiot! Such great songs!
So it tells the story of a troupe of performers on a riverboat down south called the Cotton Blossom, which is an absolutely smashing name for a boat down south. The captain of the boat, the jovial Santa of a man Captain Andy (Malcolm Sinclair, great), runs everything – the boat, the show, the troupe – with his domineering stern wife Parthy Ann (oof with that name) (oy with the poodles). Actually I think it has to be Cap’n Andy. Their daughter Magnolia (Gina Beck) yearns to be an actress but is not allowed because she is too innocent and lovely and young to be in acting, said while fanning themselves. Her best friend in the whole world is Julie La Verne (Rebecca Trehearn), the leading lady in the troupe, whose husband is the leading man. You know that Julie has a past and a disreputable character because Magnolia’s parents don’t like her spending time with Julie, scared she’ll become ruined or get her clothes dirty or something. The rest of the acting troupe is solid, with the cheeky blonde comedienne (I hate that gendered word but it is appropriate here because she was totally old-fashioned ‘20s-style ‘comedienne’, and she’s told many, many times that that is what she was) Ellie May and her nimble suitor Frank (Danny Collins, a dead ringer for Ethan Embry in that graduation party movie) making me like them more than I expected. Alex Young’s Ellie seemed over the top at first but she quickly grew on me and like, that's how the character is. While the troupe troupes it up onboard, the black dock workers do literally backbreaking work, never resting, getting underpaid to say the least. With Queenie, the cook, and Joe, her husband and one of the workers, the cast is pretty large and full of interesting characters who could each have a show about them. We don’t know much about Joe, but he is the one who sings “Old Man River”, which was a truly magical moment, hearing that in the theatre. I was really eager to see Emmanuel Kojo as Joe, but he was out (as was Sandra Marvin as Queenie), so I was disappointed at first. But both of those understudies were fabulous, and I really can’t imagine Old Man River being more moving. Pretty great actors all around, which you know I rarely say.
While docked in Southern Town, a mysterious stranger approaches the deck while Magnolia is like standing around or something in the moonlight. Naturally they fall in love because Magnolia is like ‘oh boy there’s a boy on my deck!’ and this super shadowy but intriguing figure is like ‘oh my there’s a girl who is young and pretty’ and they sing lovely soaring songs about how much they love each other before he has to go. I am pretty sure they don’t say his name yet? That’s love. Magnolia goes into the kitchen to hang with her friends, Julie and the black servants, and they have a gay old time singing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and it was swonderful. Truly.
Then, in the middle of a rehearsal, the sheriff or some other fake drunk-with-power armed law enforcement comes into the room and shouts about how there’s rumors of illegal miscegenation floating around and hoo boy we can’t have that. The alleged criminal is Julie La Verne herself, the leading lady and ostensibly white lady married to a white man. It’s a pretty brutal scene with everyone crying as Julie admits that she is actually mixed, but then her husband says that he is too, so it’s fine. He’s obviously not, but everyone in the company lies for him/them and the sheriff lets them go if they leave town, which sucks but beats being shot. The scene is distressing for everyone, especially America, and especially for Julie and Magnolia, whose sisterly bond was one of the few things the other had to count on. Luckily for Magnolia, mysterious stranger shows up to be the new leading man! and Magnolia is going to take Julie’s place since she already knows all the lines, so it’s like a tragedy became a fairy tale for her! No more tears because the handsome stranger you have a crush on is here, so who cares about your old friend and institutionalized racism! I mean she is a teenager, Magnolia, so you expect flightiness but freal, there are 5 seconds between her crying and her flirting. Oh child.
So Julie’s gone pretty early, and then we see her for ONE SONG in the second act. Granted, it’s the best song, but – I’m gonna state it – Julie la Verne is the most wasted great character in musical theatre. She has the two best songs in the show, she has such an interesting backstory and regular story, and yet those two songs are pretty much all she does. We don’t see her in Act II except for “Bill”. Don’t get me wrong, her “Bill” is a reason to see this show, most critics say the main reason because it is that good. But without a story to go with her current situation, I wasn’t all the way involved. Granted, I always thought this song was sung about a person named Bill in the show that the character was actually in love with, and not a forced ‘rehearsal for the cabaret tonight’ shoehorning into the plot. But still, it’s clear enough that the song is applicable to her current situation, we just don’t see any of it and it’s a shame because she’s so darn interesting. Did anyone write a spinoff show about her? Because I would see that.
Anyway, back in main plotland, the two lovebirds learn each other’s names and unfortunately his happens to be Gaylord Ravenal. I know. They wisely mainly refer to him as just Ravenal. They fall in love and get married like the next day or some such, and then they move to Chicago and have a baby. Sounds like a smart plan that you fully thought through.
So Gaylord turns out to be a gambler, Magnolia quickly learns, soon after she learns his name and that oh he’s her husband. He disappears a great deal, losing their money so frequently that they have to rent their rooms out. Kim, their daughter, grows up with hero worship on her father even though she saw him maybe 5 times during her childhood in convent school (sounds fun). Gaylord finally disappears for good, leaving Magnolia via a LETTER that she gets while ELLIE MAY AND FRANK are WITH HER and they have become super successful Hollywood stars and it’s SO EMBARRASSING for poor Magnolia and hot damn, did she get the shit end of the stick. Ellie helps her get a job at a cabaret singing, which is where Julie is, but while Julie sees Magnolia, Julie doesn’t let Magnolia see her. It’s all very sad and, again, worthy of MORE ATTENTION. Anyway. No use in trying to change a book that is 90 years old. Stuck in its ways and all that.
I don’t usually talk in detail about endings (or do I) because I don’t want to spoil things but the ending of this was done so well that I have to. Also its spoiler warning period expired 85 years ago. Things happen because like, 20 or 30 years pass or some such craziness? and Magnolia and a now grown-up Kim are on the Cotton Blossom because Kim is performing. She’s a performer now too. As Magnolia stands atop the boat, looking down, Gaylord appears. Because he’s a man and it was (and is) allowed for men to be total shits, everyone is ecstatic welcoming him back. Magnolia is the only one who is reserved, silent, while Kim runs to her father with open arms. Everyone else is totally fine with him. I would have said fuck you and the horse you rode in on. And that would probably be the only time I ever said that when the person really likely would have actually been on a horse. I mean, okay, so it’s 90 years old but even so, a story where a man abandons his wife and daughter because he’s a gambler and a shit and then comes back to open arms after 30 years is bullshit. Ugh I was like TURN HIM AWAY, QUEENIE.
Gaylord Ravenal I believe was the inspiration for naming Ben Stiller’s character in the “Meet the Parents” movies because man alive was he a focker. I did not see it coming that he was gonna be such a gaylord focker, either, so I was like dayummm she shoulda never met this focker. Ravenal was excellently played by Chris Peluso, who the programme tells me just graduated from U Michigan…so he is an American (USA! USA!) but also a child. Oh and he’s from Pennsylvania so at least there’s one more person in London who knows what Groundhog Day is. More importantly, he was really quite good. He looked strikingly like the Stark boy from Game of Sexist Violence, what’s his name? Rob! He looks like Rob Stark, so much that I just kind of accepted that it was him, actually. I should have known then that things wouldn’t go well. I mean, not that they don’t go well for him, he’s the man causing all the trouble so he’s fine, happy ever after as per uzh, but he’s just a dick for everyone else’s lives. Mostly women’s, so who cares!
I’m not sure if we are supposed to revile him along with Magnolia or feel pity for her or agree with Kim and rejoice at his return for her sake. Luckily, Gina Beck is so flinging flanging incredible as Magnolia that she makes everything okay: Magnolia stands atop the scene the whole time, and when she makes eye contact with Gaylord, she tells him that she’s fine, that she doesn’t despise him any more, that it’s okay that he’s back but just for Kim’s sake. But she doesn’t say any of that with words. All she does is make a little nod of reluctant acceptance, standing at top of boat watching over them, the slightest movement. It was right before blackout and reminded me of Eliza’s gasp that ends “Hamilton” (sorry spoiler!) and was so powerful that I gasp-cried at how perfect it was. Gina Beck was f-ing phenomenal. It was the best leading lady performance I’ve seen in London in a really long time, and I was shocked. I’ve seen her quite a few times in other shows, but this was beyond anything I could have expected of her. Just absolutely the role she was born to play. Her voice was perfect on this score, and p.s., it was a weekday matinee. Sometimes people hold back a little on those to save their voice and energy for the big shows. Nopers. She gave it everything.
Damn I’m still feeling that ending. So good but so devastating. At least no one gets killed. I was mixing up the plot of Carousel and other southerny shows in my head so I kept waiting for someone nice to get killed, Julie or Joe or someone tragic. Yay it didn’t happen! Just abandonment of a family and institutional racism! Even with all that, “Show Boat” is one of the classics and it’s such a special experience to see live in a big production, with such a stellar cast. Everything was done well in this production.
Oh I learned afterwards that the song “I Have the Room Above Her”, which I know and love because of Mandy Patinkin’s album Oscar & Steve, wasn’t included in this revival. It’s not actually part of the original score, as it was written for the 1936 movie and not the 1927 theatre production, but come on it was still written by Kern & Hammerstein AND included in the last Broadway revival AND Mandy Patinkin sang it. I guess really I would have been disappointed that Mandy wasn’t singing it if they did include it here but still, such a lovely song.
The show is closing by the end of the month because people are stupid so SEE IT GODAMMIT SEE IT NOW.
The audience was fine from my vantage point, which is astounding considering it was 99% white hair, which usually means phones that don’t get turned off. Aside from awful perfume, it was actually a really good audience. One thing that bothered me though, about the New London theatre, is that the programmes were $6 instead of the usual $4. I’m already paying for my programme and now you’re gonna charge extra? BUH-LERGH.
I didn’t! But people seemed to be coming out to meet their friends as I was walking home.