show boat title

Show Boat

Cape Town Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

THAT ol’ man river is rolling along strong as you like in this magnificent production of Jerome Kern’s landmark 1927 musical.

Cape Town Opera have injected large scale operatic production values in to a Broadway musical and the result is simply breathtaking with beautifully sung solos, a soaring, powerful chorus and lavish sets based around a Mississippi river boat, the Cotton Blossom.

And then there is Kern’s wonderful music with songs such as Gaylord and MagnoliaOl' Man River, Make Believe, Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man and Bill, the last, incidentally, with lyrics by P G Wodehouse, and what a difference a 30 piece orchestra makes.

The Cape Town Philharmonic under concertmaster Patrick Goodwin gave a depth, fullness and richness of sound that no amount of electronic trickery used by the small ensembles of musicians usually employed in touring musicals can match. This was the real deal.

The sound, designed by Marcel Bezuidenhout, is also helped by every member of the cast having their own microphone, which means more than 50 people miked up – this is a big production and a technical triumph..

Only make believe: Blake Fischer as Gaylord and Magdelene Minnaar as Magnolia

The musical, with books and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II is based on the novel by Edna Ferber chronicling life on the riverboats, the floating gin palaces, saloons and theatres plying their trade up and down the Mississippi.

On the fictional Cotton Blossom we follow the lives and fortunes of crew and performers over 40 years from 1887 to when the show opened. We meet low life like Pete (Jaco Muller) who exacts his revenge after being thrown off the boat for making passes at the show boat’s star Julie.

We see the oppressive laws of segregation with laws against black people marrying whites and even separate box offices for black and white – controversial subjects in 1927. And when Julie is revealed to have had a black parent, making her black, her days as an actress in white middle class plays for white folks are over.

We meet the liberal Captain Handy, played with a great sense of fun by Graham Hopkins, who goes through life full of optimism, his prudish and fun unloving wife Parthy (Anthea Thompson) along with their daughter Magnolia, played by Magdalene Minnaar who is blessed with the most wonderful voice.

Then there are the artists, the types Parthy does not want daughter Nola to mix with, particularly Julie, sung wonderfully by Angela Kerrison. She has a clear, pure voice and her singing of Bill, slurred at times, as a drunken, night club singer on her way to rock bottom, raises the hairs on the back of your neck.

It is emotional, sad, beautiful and you Otto Maidi as Joecan feel the pain of a woman who has lost her husband, her way of life, and no longer has much to live for.

Then there is Steve, (Stephen Jubber) her husband, who thinks he can act, but can’t and the comedy duo Frank (Brandon Lindsay) who always plays the villain, badly, and Ellie, sung by Catherine Daymond who has a glorious accent tailor-made for silent movies.

Otto Maidi had the Mississippi echoing to his magnificent bass voice as Joe

And there is Gaylord, an elegant, handsome Southern gentleman, and an inveterate Riverboat, race track, saloon, anywhere gambler who falls in love and then marries Magnolia, finally leaving her, and his daughter Kim (Caitlin Clerk) six years later after another bad run of gambling, telling Nola to go home to the riverboat where she will be better without him.

Blake Fischer has plenty of opera and musical theatre credentials behind him and you can see why with a pleasant manner and fine tenor, hitting top notes with ease. His duets with Minnaar ar a delight.

The real show stopper though, twice, was from Otto Maidi as Joe, the stevedore, the part written for the legendary Paul Robeson, who, ironically, was unavailable for the 1927 opening run, the start of which had been delayed, and di not sing the role until the London premiere a year later.

Maidi has a voice as rich and deep as the darkest chocolate and dMagnolia and Captain Andyoes not suffer from the lack of volume in the lowest register which is the bane of many a bass – with his power he could have been heard in Dudley.

 A big man with a big voice, his first singing of Ol' man river ended in rapturous applause . . . except it wasn’t the end, just a pause while the male chorus appeared toting barges and lifting bales for an even bigger finale and even more rapturous applause.

Supporting cast and ensemble all play their parts in what is a stunning production on the grand scale.

Magnolia sung by Magdalene Minnaar) and her father Captain Andy played by Graham Hopkins

Johan Engels’ set design, well lit by Mannie Manin, gives us a Riverboat, its theatre, the docks with walls of bales of cotton, the Trocadero night club, a gambling hall or whatever is needed with the minimum of fuss while Birrie Le Roux’s costumes are sumptuous and colourful for the rich white folks at one end and poor and threadbare for the “coloured folks work on the Mississippi” at the other, always looking authentic.

 The 40 year time span also takes us through fashion changes from bustles to flapper dresses, demure waltz to Charleston, while the whole show is lifted by some wonderful dancing created by choreographer Timothy Le Roux.

Director Janice Honeyman has taken a big show and made it bigger. Despite a cast to rival Ben Hur everything is slick and efficient with seamless scene changes and the ham acting of the play on Cotton Blossom is a delight as is the vaudeville and burlesque style of the shows on boat and nightclub in the second act.

At the end, 40 years on from when we first stepped aboard the Cotton Blossom, you have empathy for the characters, feelings for Gaylord and Nola, about the tragic Julie and the still optimistic Captain Andy, while Joe tells us that the ol' man river is still rollin' along. We care about the characters, they have become friends, and any show can’t ask for more than that.

A spontaneous standing ovation for the opening night of the short UK tour said it all. It is an expensive and glorious undertaking by Birmingham Hippodrome and Welsh National Opera to bring Cape Town Opera to our shores again – a rare treat, so don’t miss the chance to see them. To 05-07-14.

Roger Clarke

02-07-14

Show Boat sails on to: The Lowry, Salford (Jul 8-12), Millennium Centre, Cardiff (Jul 22-16) and Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin (Jul 29 – Aug 2) 

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