United Kingdom Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein, Showboat: Soloists, Cape Town Opera Chorus, Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra / Gareth Jones (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 22.7.2014 (PCG)
Magdalene Minnaar (Magnolia)
Blake Fischer (Gaylord Revenal)
Angela Kerrison (Julie)
Otto Maidi (Joe)
Nobunto Mpahlaza (Queenie)
Graham Hopkins (Captain Andy)
Stephen Jubber (Steve)
Jaco Muller (Pete)
Graham Clarke (Windy, Jim)
Anthea Thompson (Parthy)
Catherine Daymond (Ellie)
Brandon Lindsay (Frank)
Adrian Galley (Sheriff, Max)
Alex Tops (Backwoodsman)
Shelley Adriaanzen (Landlady)
Rob Thorne (Jake)
Caitlin Clark (Kim)
Showboat was one of the most popular musicals to emerge from America during the inter-War years, and as such it forms a most interesting contrast to a work which also treated the plight of the blacks in the American South in the shape of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (which received its first performance eight years later). Gershwin’s score however was not a great success at its initial outing, despite the composer’s pruning of the score even before the première; and after Gershwin’s death the opera was subjected to a severe overhaul which transformed it into a Broadway musical pure and simple – and incidentally ruined the composer’s careful delineation of character, whereby the black members of the cast sang and the few white members of the cast didn’t. Nevertheless despite this early bowdlerisation Porgy and Bess nowadays is almost invariably performed as an opera pure and simple, and the only textural concerns arise when considering which of Gershwin’s cuts (some of which were clearly made for purely practical and non-musical reasons) to observe on stage.
Showboat, being the subject of numerous revivals culminating in a Hollywood musical version of 1951, presents much greater difficulties in this regard. Kern made numerous alterations, revisions and re-compositions of his score, to the extent that when John McGlinn came to make his CD recording of the complete material Kern had written at various times, the results came out at some four hours of music. Some of this was self-contradictory, in the sense that some sections were deliberately written to replace others; but even so a presentation of the score in the theatre involves much consideration of what material actually to perform and what to leave out; this applies particularly to the underscoring of spoken dialogue.
Given the presence of a full opera company and a substantial orchestra, the performing edition adopted here rightly retained as much of the music as possible (nearly two and a half hours) including large amounts of dialogue accompanied by orchestra – to the extent that Showboat almost came into the category of the modern through-composed musical of the Lloyd Webber and Schönberg school. This sometimes wrong-footed the audience, who burst into (deserved) applause at the end of the first verse of Ol’ man river without waiting for the choral development and peroration on the same material that was to follow; but it gave them the opportunity to applaud even louder at the end. What was perhaps a more serious problem came with the contrast between the deeply-felt music which Kern gave to his black and half-caste characters and the effete vaudeville style which often served to identify the pleasure-seeking and hedonistic white ones, which at times gives the score an irretrievable period style which does not afflict Porgy and Bess.
Producer Janice Honeyman in her programme note laid emphasis on the significance of the plot to modern South Africans, and indeed the originally controversial references to the laws against mixed-race sexual relations in the southern states of America would have struck a chord with quite a few of the people on stage, whose memories would have extended back to the existence of similar obnoxious and inhumane legislation in their own country. In the event it was somewhat surprising that the production did not make more of these parallels; although the corpse of the unfortunate Julie was brought onto the stage at the curtain, this provided a rather gratuitous gloss on Kern’s own conventional happy ending (although why the reconciliation of Magnolia and the feckless Gaylord should be regarded as a ‘happy ending’ might be regarded as somewhat more problematical). But by and large this was a pretty faithful dramatic rendition of the score, and one hesitates to ask for something more unconventional in the way of production for fear of what one might have got otherwise. Honeyman certainly did not shirk the contrasts between what she described as “the fun and frivolity, the thrill and enjoyment, and the pain and passion” and one must be grateful for the faithfulness of her take on a work which after all works extremely well on its own terms without the need for a more interventionist approach.
Hearing the score at close to full length did draw attention to the rather ramshackle nature of Hammerstein’s plot, with its all-too-obvious cues for song; and it also drew attention to the manner in which Kern sometimes over-worked his musical material, with repetitions of Ol’ man river threatening to out-Argentina Evita in their almost predictable reappearances – although Hammerstein does attempt to develop his material by providing new and significantly changed words for the tune in the Second Act. But this is to complain that Showboat is not something more than it is, one of the great American musicals of the pre-Rodgers-Bernstein-Sondheim era. If it were an opera, one could complain about the manner in which the plot jumps about, although even then one could recognise the deeply serious manner in which the characters develop as they age and mature during the course of the action – something that Gershwin never attempted in his musicals until the 1930s.
Some critics, mainly in America, have a real visceral phobia about the casting of musical theatre works with operatically trained voices; they regard this as a misrepresentation of the proper ‘Broadway style’. If this is the case, so much the worse for the Broadway style, which all too often seems to prefer voices with little or no musical ability to those who can get the melodies across, especially when these melodies are as good as Kern’s. In the leading roles of this production, we heard singers whose other roles on stage include Mozartian and Puccinian parts such Pamina, Rodolfo, Colline and Zerlina; and the music benefited from the presence of such voices. On the other hand, operatic singers often experience difficulty in getting their words across in English. I am not at all sure of the reason for this. It may be that the style of operatic training puts more emphasis on the production of beautiful singing tone through the use of vowels than the employment of consonants to give the text an edge, although this does not by any means apply to all opera singers, even when they have difficulties in the upper register (sopranos and tenors seem to have more problems than mezzos or basses). Again, it may be that the use of microphones constrains the singers into delivery with less volume than they are accustomed to produce, with the result that their projection is compromised. Here there were consistent problems with the audibility of the text, even in the spoken dialogue over orchestral accompaniment, with the voices too often muffled. Perhaps a small degree of tweaking with the amplification might have helped, and this could be addressed without difficulty in future performances.
Be that as it may, the operatic artists acquitted themselves with distinction. Otto Maidi as Joe was the most successful of all; his delivery of the words was crystal clear, and his initial statement of Ol’ man river really brought the music to life. Magdalene Minaar and Blake Fischer as the romantic leads produced some glorious sounds even when their meaning was obscured, and Fischer in particular had a tendency to be overwhelmed by the orchestra in climaxes which I am sure is atypical of his usual abilities. (Incidentally he was credited in the programme with singing ‘the Lawyer’ in Peter Grimes at Salzburg; this must surely be an error, since the part of the lawyer Swallow is quite distinctly written for a bass.) Angela Kerrison as Julie delivered Can’t help lovin’ dat man o’ mine with great distinction. The other singers mainly came from the musical tradition rather than the operatic one, with Graham Hopkins, Nobuntu Mpahlaza and Catherine Daymond particularly good at portraying character across the footlights. The chorus and dancers were excellent; and the orchestra too, giving full and rich tone even with the reduced string forces under the baton of Gareth Jones (who was unaccountably denied a biography in the programme credits).
This production continues in repertory at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff until the end of the week, and then proceeds to Dublin (the production has already been seen in Manchester and Birmingham). The company is also proposing to tour to China later in the year, and one would rather hope that they would take this Showboat with them. Opportunities to see this musical with full rather than the more usually reduced forces are rare, and audiences should seize them with eagerness when they are offered.
Paul Corfield Godfrey