Cape Town Opera’s production of Show Boat is a powerful commentary on race and rights — and you will feel its meaning anywhere in the world, writes Jo Kerrigan
NEXT Tuesday is going to be a big night at Dublin’s Bord Gáis Theatre. That’s when the massive production of Show Boat, by the legendary Cape Town Opera, Africa’s premier opera company, comes to town, and if even half the accolades heaped on it to date are true, we are in for a stunning experience. Based on the novel by Edna Ferber, Show Boat is one of the first American musicals ever written. Created in 1927 with music by Jerome Kern and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, it tells a story of the old American South as it follows the lives of the performers, stagehands, and dock workers on the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi River show boat, over a 40-year period from 1887 to 1927.
Unusually for a musical, it highlights the harsh truths of racial segregation and cruelty that were a fact of life back then, albeit softened by the gentle touch of a family show rich with nostalgia, humour, love stories and delightful melodies. 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 (not legal across the US until 1967).
Between all the glitz and the glamour, it has always been a play with important social commentary. Although most of us are familiar with the 1951 film starring Howard Keel, there were in fact two earlier movie versions, in 1929 and 1936. As a live show, the huge staging demands have meant that it has been rarely performed.
Cape Town Opera’s production has enjoyed triumph after triumph since its 2005 premiere, receiving standing ovations wherever it has played. The combination of an all-South African cast, Voice of the Nation Ensemble’s incredible rendition of the iconic Ol’ Man River, the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, more than 200 period costumes and an uber-stylish set has, unsurprisingly, proved irresistible.
Key to that triumph has been director Janice Honeyman, renowned for her inventive productions, whether popular plays or classics, bawdy comedies or Broadway hits, but especially those reflecting important social issues. Her musicals include Hair, Little Shop of Horrors, Bernstein’s Candide and in 2013 an original non-replica production of Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express.
In Show Boat she had the ideal opportunity to do her favourite thing: combining entertainment and social issues in one event.
Although the show deals with sad themes: poverty, unfairness, life going downhill, says Honeyman, Jerome Kern would never have allowed a musical to go on that didn’t have good theatrical energy in it, and Show Boat has that by the bucketload. “That’s what’s wonderful, it’s such a great combination of storytelling, romance, and musical numbers as well as the important themes. You engross the audience and get them involved in the music, the colour, the lights and then they start to see for themselves that things are unfair and unbalanced. They start to think.” She feels Show Boat is beautifully crafted on an emotional level. “You are lifted up, you drop down, you go with a good kind of all-round experience.”
Bringing a mammoth show like this on tour is no picnic, she admits cheerfully. “It’s huge to move and we have just a two-day get in at the Bord Gáis. We arrive on the Monday morning and we have to be ready to go Tuesday evening, no matter what. Sets up, costumes ready, everything.
“If we can bring that excitement and our commitment to telling a story in our way and transferring the conviction we have to our audience – then it will have worked. In South Africa, she points out, players would carry their theatres on ox wagons for miles to waiting audiences. “We’re doing the same. And just as the American showboats would float down the Mississippi we’re going to bring our whole show into Dublin!”
If it could fairly be said that no other musical reflects South Africa’s past better than Show Boat, then probably no other company than Cape Town Opera could better reflect the bright future ahead for that country?
-Show Boat, Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, July 29-Aug 2. www.bordgaisenergytheatre.ie.
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