United Kingdom Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II, Show Boat: Cape Town Opera and Chorus, Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra / Gareth Jones) (music director), Birmingham Hippodrome, 2.7.2014 (GR).
Magnolia: Magdalene Minnaar
Gaylord Ravenal: Blake Fischer
Julie: Angela Kerrison
Ellie: Catherine Daymond
Frank: Brandon Lindsay
Captain Andy: Graham Hopkins
Parthy: Anthea Thompson
Joe: Otto Maidi
Queenie: Nobuntu Mpahlaza
Director: Janice Honeyman
Set Designer: Johan Engels
Costume Designer: Birrie Le Roux
Lighting: Mannie Manim
Choreographer: Timothy Le Roux
Sound Designer: Marcel Bezuidenhout
Chorus Master: Albert Horne
The UK has had to wait nine years for Cape Town Opera’s Show Boat to dock upon these shores. Birmingham does not boast a mighty Mississippi but there are miles of canals on which this floating package of entertainment might weigh anchor, and on July 2nd 2014 at the Hippodrome it found a levee on which to parade their wares. With orchestra and some fifty performers on stage it appeared to be expensive production, but whatever the delay, it was worth waiting for!
Show Boat, the musical based by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II on the novel of the same name by Edna Ferber, is said to be the first musical with a social conscience. Set during the forty years preceding its opening in 1927, it locates to both Natchez and downtown Chicago, tackling such issues as mixed-race marriage, gambling and alcoholism with an emotive force as strong as you might find in either straight theatre or opera. With its innate mix of black and white performers, Cape Town Opera are the perfect company to stage this adaptation; and Birmingham with its racial integration programmes was the ideal spot from which to begin their current UK tour. Talented director Janice Honeyman must have seen it all in her native South Africa and does not shrink from the fin de siecle social problems that still persist today: the gap between the haves and the have-nots seem as cavernous as ever. In the programme Honeyman talks about the ignorance of poverty and the arrogance of the advantaged; regrettably the audience in Birmingham generally appeared to be from the more privileged category. Honeyman and her production team illustrated their points well, paying great attention to detail. Whilst its songs push the Show Boat plot along, Honeyman filled in the blanks with some nice touches: the glimpse of Gaylord at the gambling tables; the break-up of Steve and Julie’s marriage; the pram announcing the arrival of baby Kim. She provided laughter too: there was Andy’s insistence for a lively beat – ‘rag not drag’, and Parthy’s loss of hearing as the years began to tell. Although the emphasis was on light entertainment, as one of the black hands cradled a dead body in the final chorus, Honeyman left the audience with her main message.
The opening set design of Johan Engels was also impressive. The essentials of the riverboat Cotton Blossom that doubles as a music hall were there – its dual funnels, ship’s wheel, paddle blades, shivering timbers and mountainous cotton bales. As Captain Andy introduced his touring troupe, he made a good job of advertising the show they were about to put on for the Mississippi locals, simultaneously promoting the potential of Cape Town Opera. With much Ballyhoo, waving flags as if they were setting the scene for a ball game, Graham Hopkins stressed they were one big happy family, typified by the zany antics of Catherine Daymond and Brandon Lindsay as Ellie and Frank. The costumes of Birrie Le Roux were one pointer to the status of black and white Americans, the downtrodden stevedores and deckhands reduced to scrubbing/sweeping the boards of both ship and landing stage, graphically effective. Le Roux’s costumes for Ellie (see pic) were equally striking, while the queen for the reproduction of the 1893 Chicago World Fair scene that began Act II was dazzling. Technically the lighting of Mannie Manim and the sound of Marcel Bezuidenhout delivered; with every cast member miked, Bezuidenhout mastered the balance. Good as all these components were, the biggest single factor to the show’s success was the ensemble dance numbers. Celebrating their centenary year, the Cape Town Opera Philharmonia Orchestra under their Music Director Gareth Jones, were equally at ease with whatever was required of them to set the scene – from Souza to bee-bop. And if there is a more versatile singing dance group (or should that be hoofing songsters) than the Cape Town Opera Chorus (winners of Chorus of the Year Award at the 2013 International Opera Awards London) let me know! I lost count of the snatches of dance they undertook – can-can, belly dancing, black bottom, Charleston, African native, etc. They brought true Broadway entertainment to Brum! Whilst the magic of Kern helped, the choreography of Timothy Le Roux made it so much more. Act I’s Can’t Help Loving That Man of Mine was exceptional!
The pick of the singing cast for me was Angela Kerrison as Julie, suggesting that for her crossover was not a problem. Two of her numbers were outstanding. Firstly in Can’t Help Loving That Man of Mine she demonstrated she could sing and act; with a confident and even tone she presented her mulatto character faultlessly, balancing the black and white elements (although I always find it difficult to judge amplified voices). Secondly in Bill, sung under the influence, she portrayed realistic unsteadiness in voice and body, aspects echoed by the piano accompaniment; it was heart wrenching and poignant. As Ellie the music hall entertainer, Daymond also contributed much to the proceedings – not a classic voice but a sassy, blousy trooper of musical theatre, always capable of entertaining those who came to see her, both on the riverboat and in the Birmingham Hippodrome. Ably supported by Lindsey as Frank, I thought their Goodbye, My Lady Love was a hoot. Hopkins also had his moments as the Captain, often in a continuity capacity, including his advice to rescue Magnolia’s After the Ball during her Trocadero nightclub act. Memories of Paul Robeson will always be made whoever plays Joe, but it was to Otto Maidi’s credit that comparisons to the iconic voice (for whom the song Ol’ Man River was written) could be made; the audience wallowed in his sonorous tones, content to roll along with him. Magdalene Minnaar as Magnolia was good in parts, average in others, never convincing as an eighteen-year old. I thought her fancy man lacked charisma, his Where’s the Mate for Me unlikely to knock a teenager beauty off her feet. Together their Only Make Believe carried little belief to me although their reprise of Why Do I Love You with the choir’s support was fine and perhaps their best moment.
There were a few other minuses: I thought the incident with guns was somewhat weak and Cotton Blossom’s show within a show dragged a bit (despite the neat use of ship’s two funnels to create the proscenium arch). Regarding the storyline, I thought it strange that Julie left the Trocadero before Magnolia began her audition. However the plusses easily won the day, in a meaningful and glamorous production. The audience gave them a much deserved standing ovation.
The Show Boat steams into Salford (July 8-12), Cardiff (July 22-26) and Dublin (July 29 –Aug 2). Get on board if you can!’