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Showboat, The Lowry, Reviewed

Joan Davies on the beauty and the clunk of the Cape Town Opera's brief tour

Written by . Published on July 10th 2014.

Showboat, The Lowry, Reviewed

CAPE TOWN Opera’s production of Jerome Kern’s Showboat fills The Lowry’s Lyric stage. The singing is glorious. I doubt a better rendition has ever existed.

Cape Town Opera tackles the piece with an understanding and commitment that few other companies could bring. I can't wait to see them back in the UK.

The Lowry is one of only three UK venues to stage Cape Town Opera’s brief tour of this show. The company won Best International Opera Chorus at the 2013 International Opera Awards and its rich and powerful voice is well displayed in the spacious Lyric auditorium. Their soloists are superb too.

The story follows the lives of the performers, stagehands, and dock workers on the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi River Show Boat, over a forty year period from 1887 to 1927.

Star performer Julie has managed to disguise her mixed race background but the racial laws in the town they visit drive her away. Magnolia, daughter of Showboat’s owners, takes over her role, much to the displeasure of the mother who disparages the actors who provide her income and the black workers who man the boat.

Magnolia falls for Gaylord Revenal, newly recruited to the Showboat stage, but in fact no more than a charming gambler. Moving forward in time, alcoholism, gambling and marital discord take their toll. Only three things are stable: the fractious marriage of Showboat owner Captain Andy to his wife Parthy, the downtrodden position and stoicism of the black workers, and the river which ‘just keeps rollin’ along’.

It’s of course that river song Ol’ Man River which draws in the audience. Paul Robeson, historically a hero in Manchester after singing to crowds on the streets of Moss Side in 1949, provided that definitive performance etched in everyone’s mind. However, It’s William Warfield’s performance in the 1951 musical film we usually see on our TV screens rather than Robeson in the lesser-seen 1936 movie.

On Press Night Otto Maidi’s stunningly powerful and beautifully rich performance gained the strongest applause of the evening. All four main soloists were superb. Robin Botha as Magnolia grew convincingly from a gauche teenager to a confident young woman and performer. Blake Fishcer, onetime RNCM student, gave beautiful renditions of his ballads and Lynelle Kenned is simply stunning as Julie; her performance of Bill is the second solo highlight of the show.

Opera Companies performing musicals can sometimes get the balance wrong, losing clarity of diction to depth of delivery. Not in this case. The balance is exactly right and the show is worth a visit for the quality of the singing, and the cast deserved their standing ovation at the end.

The downside is that the show feels clunky in parts. The first ten minutes, essential for context, feels much longer, and the first act is overly long. The plot and much of the dialogue too are cumbersome and clunky.

Even some of the tunes don’t really grab you. Gaylord’s ballads have a touch of formula about them, carefully structured and beautifully sung, with one or two recognisable to older members of the audience, but they are of a time, and there’s a few too many of them. Livelier numbers such as Can’t Help Loving That Man of Mine and the powerful Mis’ry’s Comin' Round compensate.

The set is impressive and costumes superb. Great use is made of the Lyric’s stage width.

Showboat, written in 1927, was a brave departure for a musical. It used a relatively low-key love and lack of commitment story to make a strong underlying statement about the role of race legislation and the arrogance which entrenched power can generate.

Cape Town Opera tackles the piece with an understanding and commitment that few other companies could bring. I can't wait to see them back in the UK.

Showboat runs at The Lowry until Saturday 12th July.

Tickets from £29.00 can be purchased here.

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