Show Boat is a piece of theatre very much of its time, yet one which has aged amazingly well, its humour, social comment and poignant observations still speaking to contemporary audiences.
Before watching Cape Town Opera’s production at the Hippodrome, I’d never seen Show Boat before and didn’t know the story, but for someone raised on a steady Disney diet, many of its elements were strikingly familiar: a rousing, catchy score, a boy-meets-girl, “love at first song” romance, larger-than-life characters and crucially, the suggestion of darker goings-on behind the happy-ever-after facade which are never quite satisfactorily resolved. There’s a reason for these similarities, of course: where Disney films often hark back to an imagined bygone age of happy innocence, Show Boat seems to criticise that same idealism, particularly over the course of its second act, emerging as it does from an era of drastic social change in the early 20th century. In Show Boat, while young “Miss Nola” idly daydreams the days away on her father’s boat before being swept off her feet by a charming would-be gentleman, the Cotton Blossom’s predominantly black crew live through real hardships and face abuse and injustices every day. It also shows us what happens when the “wrong kind” of young lady aspires to her own happy ending with love, fame and fortune: for the secretly mixed-race Julie, everything inevitably falls to pieces. And of course, even Magnolia’s own ever-after soon proves far from perfect: a young mother later abandoned by her gambling husband, she faces potential shame and poverty. Fortunately for Nola, there’s always someone there to help her through her troubles. Unfortunately, however, her hidden “fairy godmother” figure is all too often Julie, whose self-sacrifice and suffering go ever unrewarded, to the point where her eventual tragic death is barely acknowledged.
Like the wider Show Boat production itself, a series of exciting and colourful shows within the show each entertain and draw us in with lively acting, amazing sets and elaborate costumes, even as they hint at tougher, more unpleasant truths: race discrimination in the replacing of Julie with Magnolia, for example, or the desperation of the girls who turn to dancing in seedy clubs to make a living. Through the story of Magnolia and her daughter, Kim, we see cultural shifts of the 1920s and their impact on women’s lives played out. What seems at first to be a tragedy for Magnolia proves ultimately to be a blessing in disguise, granting her the independence to follow her dreams and pursue a performing career, as well as to inspire her daughter to do the same. It’s considerably easier for Kim to get started on that path: by the time her generation comes of age, acting, singing and even dancing for a living are no longer seen as the shameful things they once were. A striking scene at the Chicago World’s Fair really highlights the contrast between these two generations. In 1893, a dark-skinned belly dancer represents the ultimate exotic and erotic other, her clothing and movements considered almost obscene by “respectable”, white, Christian women. Yet within a few short years, the Western girls themselves are wearing much skimpier clothing and publicly performing dances equally as suggestive: by the end of the show, even Kim’s uptight grandmother is wearing a skirt which, in her own disgruntled words, is practically “up to [her] knees”.
Sadly, this gradual increase in freedom for women is not extended to Show Boat’s “coloured folks” – not yet, anyway, although we can perhaps see prefigured in these developments the potential for what comes next, particularly as African American culture, like newly-discovered expressions of female sexuality, gains in coolness and credibility: the manager at the Trocadero is thrilled to hear that Magnolia wants to perform “coloured songs”, and is disappointed when she begins singing them in her own, more traditional style.
It’s far from all serious business though: Show Boat retains the power to make audiences laugh out loud as well as cry, largely thanks to Magnolia’s hilariously mismatched parents: the charismatic Captain Andy and his unhappy wife, played here with excellent comic timing by Graham Hopkins and Anthea Thompson, only get funnier as the show progresses. Angela Kerrison, meanwhile, is soul-crushingly sad as the ill-fated Julie, with her beautiful, bluesy performances of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill”. Her experienced, unhappy character is offset by that of Magnolia, whose naive, trusting overconfidence speaks clearly through Magdalene Minnaar’s powerful, soaring vocals. Caitlin Clerk is also brilliant in her brief stint as the bright and cheery Kim, her charm matched by that of her father, Gaylord, played by Blake Fischer. Undoubtedly though, the true stars of the show are Otto Maidi and Nobuntu Mpahlaza, who couldn’t have been more perfectly cast as the captivating Joe and Queenie. More than any other characters, they scale Show Boat’s full emotional range, from their utterly joyous take on “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” to the sombre and deeply moving “Ol’ Man River”, leaving much of the audience choked up with a magnificent closing rendition of the latter.
Of course, the show couldn’t have been half as successful without the support of its phenomenal chorus and the incredible Cape Philharmonic Orchestra. The entire company belted through each song, from the sad to the mirthful, the classical to the jazzy, with a very well-deserved confidence. It’s rare to see such polish matched by such passion, but CTO do genuinely seem to have it all, and it’s an amazing privilege to have the chance to see such brilliant performers hailing from so far away from home.
Show Boat is playing at the Birmingham Hippodrome until Saturday 5th July. To book tickets, call 0844 338 5000 or visit the theatre’s website.