What is it that makes a play or a musical a ‘classic’? Is it a score of memorable songs with catchy tunes? Well-developed characters that go through significant personal developments? Or perhaps a universal central theme that withstands the test of time?
Show Boat has it all: The social commentary, a 40-year timeline for intense character development, a strong-voiced cast of nearly 50. And then it has the songs. Songs like ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’ and ‘Why Do I Love You?’ just melt the listener away into the moment, but the most recognizable must be ‘Old Man River’. Xolela Sixaba as Joe (also played by Paul Madibeng) masterfully conveys the slow trickle of time and the wisdom of the river with his deep bass rendition of the song, an entire cultural history reverberating through his voice as he sings: “I get weary and sick of trying/ I’m tired of living but scared of dying”. Though Joe is a relatively minor part, Sixaba and the irrepressible Nobuntu Mpanlaza as Queenie evoked one of the biggest cheers during a long standing ovation on opening night.
Originally written in 1927 by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, Cape Town Opera’s production of Show Boat demonstrates exactly why this musical is still enthralling audiences today. For just four shows over one weekend, Cape Town theatre goers were treated to an operatic musical spectacular exquisitely directed by theatre legend Janice Honeyman, reliving this timeless piece on our local stage before the talented production heads back to continue its highly acclaimed European tour in July.
Even though the story of Show Boat takes place at the turn of the previous century, the themes played out are still hauntingly relevant. The boat in question is a travelling theatre – the Cotton Blossom – managed by Captain Andy Hawks (played with light-hearted swagger by the ever-engaging Graham Hopkins) and his merry crew of performers. The elegant and vivacious Lynelle Kenned – on a short break from Blood Brothers – plays the singing sensation of the Cotton Blossom, Julie la Verne. Julie’s mixed race blood is of no concern to her shipmates, least of all her white husband, but when the boat travels down into the deep south, where folk are simple but the lines between black and white are very clear, Julie and her husband are banned from the state and thus from the show, opening the chance for a new star to emerge: Captain Andy’s daughter Magnolia (a role shared once again by the two sweet-voiced sopranos who shared the role of Christine in Phantom of the Opera: Magdalene Minnaar and Robin Botha).
From the opening scene, the issue of racial segregation becomes a central theme. Show Boat was revolutionary in being the first Broadway show ever to feature black and white actors together on stage, the first to use the ‘N word’ and the first to depict an interracial marriage. Between all the glitz and the glamour, it has always been a play with important social commentary. As director Janice Honeyman notes: “Show Boat deals with haves and have nots, the arrogance of the disadvantaged and their ignorance regarding poverty and racial discrimination.”
In a storyline that spans 40 years, we see the two main female leads at their best and most beautiful, as well as at their worst, as the play explores the theme of undying love. Magnolia marries a suave gambler with the dashing name of Gaylord Ravenal (Blake Fisher and Tim Walton) who, in the second half of the play, gambles their lives away and abandons his family in shame. Many years later, as Captain Andy organizes a reunion, Magnolia accepts Gaylord back without thinking twice, waltzing on the fine line between beautiful love and bitter loneliness. Julie however, who has also been abandoned by her husband, finds solace in the arms of alcoholism.
Woven into the intricate design of this performance and its attention to detail are the gorgeous costumes, under Birrie Le Roux’s design. The 40-year span allowed for period dress changes, from late 1800’s bustles and lace parasols to 1920’s flapper dresses with wigs and long beaded necklaces, feathers in the hair. With around a 100 period costumes, perfect to the last thread, the colourful swishes of fabric formed an intricate part of the entertainment. Just as elaborate and intricate are Johan Engels’ monumental-yet-slick set designs, Mannie Manim’s lighting, and the music from the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Cape Town Opera’s much-loved Albert Horne in what will be his last performance before taking up the role of chorus master for Staats Theater Wiesbaden in Germany.
From camp comedy (courtesy of Graham Hopkins, Anthea Thompson as Parthy and Catherine Daymond as Ellie) through razzle dazzle choreography, to heart-breaking gravitas, Show Boat has it all. It has been on Broadway for almost 90 years, and will continue to be revisited and revived for as long as there are people who want to be entertained. Seeing such a true classic being performed by our South African talents is something to be proud of – every single cast member gives it their all for every single second of the play. The Cape Town Opera can be relied upon to continue raising the profile of our local on international stages.
Show Boat ran at the Artscape Opera House 16 to 18 May 2014.