In the week that outgoing Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres, Daniel Evans, opens his final musical for that theatre, Flowers for Mrs Harris, I caught up with the London transfer of his production of Show Boat at the New London Theatre. Nestled out of the way at the top end of Drury Lane, I hadn’t visited the one-time home of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats since a production of Joseph, starring Stephen Gately, played there in 2003. Ironically, the latest Lloyd Webber musical, School of Rock, has already been announced to follow Show Boat which will conclude its run early in August.

Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s 1927 musical broke new territory in its day. Hailed as the first musical where the songs fit a narrative and explore contemporary political and social values, its dramatic themes of freedom and equality are still relevant today. This production uses a version of the show that was commissioned by the Goodspeed Opera House in 2011 – the action flows fluidly throughout and it’s a much more accessible version than the Cape Town Opera production I saw a couple of years ago.

Musically this is the best sung Show Boat that you will see or hear for a very long time – there’s truly no better vocals in any other current West End show. Gina Beck is a real discovery as Magnolia – she has the kind of soprano voice of one of the major musical stars of the 1950s and 1960s. As Gaylord Ravenal, the man whom she falls in love with but who lets her down, Chris Peluso shows a wholly different vocal quality to his recent American GI in Miss Saigon. The first duet with Beck, ‘Only Make Believe’, as their characters meet and fall in love, is absolutely exquisite.

In this story of multiple generations of a family on board Captain Andy’s Show Boat, Julie – the star of their show – is ruined by the discovery that she is in a mixed-race marriage in a time of racial segregation. Rebecca Trehearn shows the downward spiral that her character endures, singing a spine-tingling ‘Bill’, full of pathos and regret. Emmanuel Kojo sings a haunting version of the musical’s most famous number, ‘Ol’ Man River’, while Sandra Marvin’s Queenie is a strong presence throughout, keeping a watchful eye on what’s happening on the boat.

Malcolm Sinclair’s Captain Andy maintains the audience’s interest in what’s going on on the Show Boat and is endearing for suffering at the hands of a difficult wife, Lucy Briers’ demanding Parthy. Another Show Boat performing duo, Alex Young’s Ellie May Chipley and understudy Dale Evans’ Frank Schultz also keep the action moving and have a fun duet, ‘Goodbye My Lady Love’. Young – a former Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year winner – has a great sense of musical comedy timing in ‘Life Upon the Wicked Stage’ too.  

The New London auditorium is shaped like Sheffield – and Chichester – where Evans is about to take up post. He leaves Sheffield on a high with this West End transfer – if he can keep this kind of standard up at Chichester, audiences will be in for a real treat.