In his five years as artistic director Daniel Evans has established the Crucible Christmas musical as an annual treat for Sheffielders, not to mention a money-spinner for the theatre. He has certainly raised the bar for whoever succeeds him in 2016.
As with My Fair Lady, Oliver! and Anything Goes in previous years, we get a wonderful spectacle, a uniformly excellent cast, along with the fluid choreography of Alistair David. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s classic musical is set on and around a 19th century Mississippi riverboat (Lez Brotherston’s dazzling set is greeted with a round of applause) which exists as a world of its own with rules different from dry land (particularly its racial integration).
The story revolves around the love story between the naïve young daughter, Magnolia (Gina Beck), and the worldly Gaylord, the handsome but flawed stranger (Michael Xavier bringing just the hint of the cad). Their duets are a treat.
There are particularly strong performances too from the female supporting characters headed by Sandra Marvin as the formidable Queenie who delivers the portentious Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’, Alex Young, reprising her sassy best-friend role from Anything Goes as Ellie May, and Rebecca Trehearn as Julie LaVerne whose life spirals downwards after being outed as mixed race.
As the other half of the wannabe showbiz couple, the prancing Frank Schultz, Adam Collins demonstrates his experience with the Matthew Bourne company.
At the centre of it all is Captain Andy, a jolly showman played by Allan Cordunier with the air of an old-time New York comic, and Lucy Briers the stern matriarch who may be a figure of fun, but she is the one who spots that her future son-in-law is a bit of a wrong ’un.
It is remarkable to think that a show with such prescient themes of racial prejudice and tension or the effects of gambling and alcoholism on family life dates from 1927. Evans hammers home the message of the refrain, “Coloured folks work while de white folks play,” by having the barge-toting stevedores staggering under the weight of the bales they are lifting while the strutting white overseer cracks a whip.
The show’s big iconic number, Ol’ Man River, is sung (movingly and powerfully by Emmanuel Kojo) by a character, Joe, who is comparatively minor in the narrative, although, later he and Queenie, now in old age, have a touching duet, I Still Suits Me.
This is an example of how some scenes, however delightful in themselves, barely seem to connect with what has gone before or after. This could be to do with the 40-year span of the narrative apparently condensed in this 2011 stage version. A video projection marks the passing of the years as the second half shifts to Chicago but there’s still a sense of things not quite hanging together. It’s a minor quibble that just goes to show we have become spoiled.