SHOW BOAT AT THE BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME
Theatre Run: Wednesday 02 - Saturday 05 July 2014
Performance Reviewed: Wednesday 02 July (Press Night)
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
Birmingham certainly seems to be getting into the 4th July spirit this year, serving up a double dose of all-American Classic Musical goodness as Cape Town Opera’s Show Boat rolls into town for the week at the Hippodrome, following Annie Get Your Gun which kicked off it’s run at the New Alex yesterday evening (and garnered a 3 star review from us). But whereas Annie Get Your Gun seemed to be a strangely muted and subdued affair that didn’t live up to it’s glimmers of potential and pedigree, Show Boat is undoubtedly the real deal; a big, grand, hugely impressive slice of classic musical theatre writ large and executed with scope and grandeur that nevertheless displays extraordinary attention to detail.
Charting a roughly forty year period from the late 1800’s through to the early 20th Century, Show Boat follows the lives and goings-on of the owners, performers and dock workers of Mississippi show boat the Cotton Blossom, as they endure comings, goings, love, loss and seemingly everything in-between. A hugely important show for it’s time (having original been brought to the stage way back in 1927), not only due to it’s handling of key social and racial issues, but also in its watershed approach of infusing a Broadway musical with a dramatic narrative and shape in a way which had yet to be seen at the time.
It’s still easy to see the framework that Show Boat laid down for future productions to come, and in many ways it is still rightfully regarded as one of the most influential and defining musicals of all time. The principle love story between young ingenue Magnolia (played here by Magdalene Minnaar) and somewhat reckless gambling man Gaylord Ravenal (Blake Fischer) and the structuring of their finding one another and subsequent problems shows the seeds of many future musical couplings, particularly from co-lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II’s prolific future work with Richard Rodgers. And as mentioned, there are more serious and still-relevant subplots concerning racial prejudice and segregation - beautifully depicted with the likes of wise old Joe (Otto Maidi) and spirited wife Queenie (Nobuntu Mpahlaza) and particularly so with the more sombre and tragic story of mixed-race aspiring actress Julie (Angela Kerrison), whose fortunes take a notable turn for the worse when her parentage is revealed. And although credit must of course go to original novelist Edna Ferber for much of Show Boat’s core narrative and the sublime adaptation work done for the original stage production, Cape Town Opera simply cannot be praised enough for their fidelity and ambition in so sumptuously realising this ‘mother of musicals’ in such glorious, grandiose fashion.
Across the board this is nigh-faultless, staggeringly authentic staging and musical theatre artistry at it’s finest. Big, sweeping, colourful and supremely convincing are just a handful of the superlatives which spring to mind - from hair, costume and make-up perfectly capturing the variety of eras and locales brought to life across the show - from the humble Southern river shores of the Mississippi to the clapper girls and Hollywood glamour of 1920’s Chicago - to some of the most impressive and immersive set, staging and lighting design since the recent revival production of Evita. The sense of place and community evoked on stage is amongst the finest I have had the pleasure of seeing, and for a touring production, Show Boat has a dazzling, chameleonic identity and confidence in design that is quite remarkable.
This sense of scope and quality carries on to the enormous, 50+ strong ensemble and cast including the internationally award-winning Cape Town Opera Chorus, who all raise the roof with some of the beautiful numbers and set pieces the show can boast, not least of all the rousing ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’ and show-stopping, goosebump-eliciting ‘Ol’ Man River’, all of which soar through the auditorium with a full, powerful arrangement courtesy of the sensational Cape Town Philarmonic Orchestra. As truly great and impressive as Show Boat looks, it arguably sounds even better.
The featured players do a terrific job of leading amongst all the spectacle and sound, with Magdalene Minnaar supremely likeable and earnest as Magnolia, and a voice which beautifully tiptoes between more conventional musical stylings and some of the shows more operatic slant. Likewise for Blake Fischer, who, whilst perhaps a little too clean-cut as the more reckless Gaylord, nonetheless reaches into the characters stronger notes in the likes of ‘You are Love’ with confidence and power. Otto Maidi’s ‘Ol’ Man River’, as mentioned, seemed torn from his very soul, a masterful presence and performance which rightfully got the most palpable audience reaction of the evening. Other standouts amongst the cast include Graham Hopkins as the boat’s well-meaning Captain Andy, Catherine Daymond as ditzy aspiring actress/fame-seeker Ellie and Anthea Thompson who is deliciously cantankerous throughout as Magnolia’s stubborn, conservative mother (and Captain Andy’s wife) Parthy.
There’s very little else to say about Show Boat other than it comes as an absolute recommendation, and one that fans of musical theatre should make a priority of seeing. It’s thoroughly old-fashioned and classical but in all the right ways, and here gets the full-scale treatment in glorious style. Cape Town Opera only bring their wonderful productions to the UK every couple of years, so heed this chance and make it a priority to roll on down to the river (well, canal... it’s Birmingham after all) and experience their Show Boat while you can, for a spectacular, spectacular show it is indeed.
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * * * (5 out of 5 Stars)
+ One of the most definitive, influential early musicals of the 20th Century
+ Gorgeously, gloriously realised by CTO
+ Both looks and sounds grand, stunning
+ Terrific central performances
+ Huge ensemble and the Cape Town Philarmonic adds extra gravitas and clout
+ Ol' Man River
- May be a little overlong or traditional for younger audiences
SHOW BOAT is running at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Wednesday 02 to Saturday 05 July 2014.
Alternatively, call Ticket Sales directly on 0844 338 5000 now to book your tickets!
Press tickets for this performance of Show Boat were provided courtesy of the Birmingham Hippodrome directly. (A)musings Media gratefully acknowledges their generous invitation.