Queen of Geekdom #3- Show Boat Review

This is 100% a cheat. Sure, I’m a Broadway Geek, but when I set out to start this series, I did not mean to write about all of the things I geek out over, just mostly movies and comics and stuff.

But you know what? This is my blog and I have so many feelings about the production of the musical that defined musicals for eternity, Show Boat, currently running at the New London Theatre.

For the uninformed, Show Boat is the original musical. Based on the book of the same name (written by Edna Faber, shortly to be reviewed on this blog), it follows the exploits of the workers-both white and black- of the show boat called The Cotton Blossom. It’s sold as a bright, cheerful, All-American classic musical with the Oscar Hammerstein tunes you love.

The brilliant thing about the revival currently playing at The New London Theatre is that it is the ultimate bait-and-switch. From the moment one enters the theatre, there is an air of the romantic. A violin warms up in the pit; the outside hallways are decked out with the show’s rich, red posters. When the cast enters, they are beautiful people decked out in muted, but beautiful costumes. And then, from behind the silent crowd of many white faces, the strong voice of a black man erupts, “Colored folks work on de Mississippi. Colored folks work while de white man play.” There is no score, no dramatic lighting shift, no pomp and circumstance. Just the silence of the white characters and the strong chorus of the characters of color.

If you thought you were in for a colorful turn-of-the-century romp, you could not have been more wrong. The very first moments of the musical prove that to you. The air fills with stray whisps of cotton, and the sound of a convicting history force you to listen. And when you are finally delivered from the moment of tension into the bright world of The Cotton Blossom, it is impossible not to wonder if it’s perhaps a commentary on the way The (mainly white) Establishment uses entertainment and spectacle to take away from the true issues plaguing our country (see: the current U.S. election).

What follows behind this powerful opening is a nearly three hour exploration of American race relations masquerading as an early American musical comedy. While the A and B stories are fine- bolstered by stand-out performances from Malcolm Sinclair as Captain Andy Hawks, the leader of the Cotton Blossom and Rebecca Trehearn as the white-passing actress Julie- it is director Daniel Evans’ careful attention to the underpinning stories about Joe, Queenie, and the African-American characters that makes this show impossible to look away from. In fact, I often found myself wishing the stories regarding the white characters were even half as compelling as anything Joe and Queenie ever did.

A review of this production would be empty if there were not an entire paragraph dedicated to Emmanuel Kojo, the brilliant actor who took on the role of Joe. Anyone who knows anything about musical theatre (and even many people who don’t) have at least heard of Show Boat’s most famous song, “Old Man River.” When Kojo sings it, though, it takes on an entirely new meaning. Generally, Joe is a role given to older men, especially given the role’s low vocal range. The moment that the relatively young Kojo sang the lyrics, “I get weary, and sick of tryin’. I’m tired of living and scared of dyin’,” I felt a torrent of tears run down my face. How could such a young man feel so much pain? How could the other young men around him feel the same way?

Musical Theatre has always been my favorite art form for its ability to trick an audience. Musicals- the good ones, anyway- force you to laugh or to let your guard down to music, and then try and cram some meaning into your experiences. In that moment, through Emmanuel Kojo’s performance, I could feel what I could never understand as a privileged white girl. Through his performance, he found the hole in my chest that the Hammerstein score and Alistair David choreography had carved and forced in painful insight into the experience of a black man in this world. Even the young are forced to grow up fast; they understand pain and oppression so early and it never lets up. Even a man as young as Kojo’s Joe could be weary and sick of trying.

This moment, this glimmer of convicting insight into someone else’s experiences, is worth whatever price you have to pay to get into the theatre.

A friend of mine asked if the show might transfer to New York. My answer is that it never could, because it would distract us with real, complex and even unanswerable questions about race, keeping us from the all-too important work of congratulating ourselves for curing racism by putting Hamilton up. Show Boat is complicated, moving, conflicting, difficult and awe-inspiring. It asks hard questions, gives no answers, and forces you to leave the theatre and find your own thoughts, all while humming the delightful “Dat Man Of Mine” song.

In short, this production of Show Boat is vital. There is no production in the entire city of London that deserves your attention more than this one.

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