Theatre in Wales

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Dazzler of a Production in Wales-South Africa Collaboration

At Wales Millennium Centre

Cape Town Opera & WMC: Showboat , Wales Millennium Centre , July 23, 2014
At Wales Millennium Centre by Cape Town Opera & WMC: Showboat The Mississippi is foremost among the great rivers in its cultural impact. Mark Twain took its fame to the world and Huck Finn impelled Jonathan Raban and his boat to take to the water a century later. The result was one of the great books of travel “Old Glory”. Completing the triangle a third work of weight, Jerome Kern’s “Showboat”, premiered in 1927. In the hands of Cape Town Opera this “Showboat” makes for an event that is rare in performance. A beauty of theatre is that it is infinitely renewable. But it feels is as nothing more can be made from this show, that director Janice Honeyman’s production is one for a lifetime.

“Showboat” is crucial in the development of the musical but formally it has one unique characteristic. Its emotional centre resides in a character with hardly a line of dialogue to his name. For the opening night in Cardiff Otto Maidi plays Joe and sings “Ol Man River” in a performance of show-stopping magnificence. The most wracked of Hammerstein’s lyrics include “tote dat bale” and the bales of cotton in Johan Engels’ design are fifteen feet high. The main song is better known than its later reprise. “I’m tired of living/ And scared of dying” becomes “but I keep laughing, instead of crying/ I must keep fighting, until I’m dying.”

The first act creates a series of high points around the starkness and emotion of ‘Ol Man River”. Timothy le Roux is creator of the electrifying dance for “Can’t Help Loving Dat Man.” There is a style of rapid change in speed of movement to the choreography that makes it utterly of South Africa. The plot darkens when Nobuntu Mpahlaza takes the lead for her ominous number “Misery’s Coming Round.” The first act closes with “You Are Love” and it sounds a new song in the hands of opera performers Magdalene Minnaar and Blake Fischer.

The singing highlight of the second act is Angela Kerrison’s lament for “Bill.” At its most poignant moment Gareth Jones pauses his baton and the voice sings unaccompanied. The plot, removed in the main to Chicago, is a series of episodic slivers from the novel. Characters rise and fall at speed, meet and re-meet, more commonly by accident than plot logic. The dance high point is a sequence of the Charleston performed at a blurring velocity. Some of the dandies in the ensemble match vertically-striped blazers with socks of horizontal stripes.

The lavish costume for the forty-six strong cast is the work of Birrie le Roux. Mannie Manim’s lighting design creates an image of the fallen Julie. She is picked out in a gorgeous yellow dress in contrast with the tatterdemalion costume of the Natchez riverfronters.

The four-city 2014 tour “Showboat” is a result of the partnership agreement between venue and company. That partnership saw Bryn Terfel’s debut in South Africa alongside the WMC chorus, the seventy members of Only Kids Aloud. The WMC Chair was in South Africa in May to renew the partnership. There are plans for singers to benefit from Denis O’Neill’s Academy of the Voice. WMC Artistic Director Graeme Farrow says in a public address that he has been stunned by the company’s treatment of Verdi’s “Macbeth.” Nothing is set as yet, says the WMC, but watch this space. In the meantime the community audiences for the huge company of ninety has ranged from the pupils from Mount Stuart, St Mary’s and Grangetown Primary Schools to the Senior Citizens of Butetown’s Community Centre.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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