After more than 80 years, “Show Boat,” the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein masterpiece, has finally docked in Paris. It was worth the wait.
Actually, the musical was produced in 1929, two years after the Broadway premiere, at the very same Theatre du Chatelet in French under the title “Mississipi” -- with one P only. This is the first Paris production in English. That it comes from South Africa makes it doubly interesting.
Racial discrimination, an issue tackled head-on by the musical, was very much on the minds of the first-nighters at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York. And so it was at the Cape Town Opera, where it was first performed in 2005.
In the meantime, the production has traveled to German, Swedish and Norwegian opera houses. The tour speaks for itself: Along with “Porgy and Bess,” “Show Boat” is one of the few musicals taken seriously even by snooty opera fans.
The plot makes more sense than that of many operas: Edna Ferber’s novel, on which the musical is based, not only deals with the racism of the Deep South. It also describes -- less powerfully than Dostoevsky and Zola, to be sure -- the disastrous consequences of compulsive gambling and drinking.
The result, fortunately, is neither a tragedy nor a moral tract. Thanks to Hammerstein’s clever condensation of the novel, including a new happy ending, “Show Boat” is a sunny work. Kern’s score is filled with catchy tunes, yet it’s all of a piece. The song “Ol’ Man River” holds it together just as the Mississippi holds together the plot and the characters.
Among the many versions of the oft-revised score, the Cape Town Opera has opted for the one used at the Broadway revival in 1946, without the overture and the convent scene and with a new number, “Nobody Else but Me.”
Director Janice Honeyman, Johan Engels (set) and Birrie le Roux (costumes) present “Show Boat” as a picturesque period piece, realistic yet stylized, sentimental though with a welcome touch of tongue-in-cheek humor.
The singers, though not outstanding, are fine. Janelle Visagie is a ladylike Magnolia, the daughter of Captain Andy, who pilots the floating theater up and down the river.
Blake Fischer as Gaylord Ravenal, her gambling love interest, has a ringing tenor voice. Angela Kerrison is a sweet Julie, the mulatto whom the law forces to quit the show, thereby launching Magnolia’s career.
The best vocal performance comes from Otto Maidi as the black dockworker Joe: He sings “Ol’ Man River,” the show’s signature tune, with majestic dignity.
Malcolm Terrey’s Captain Andy is funny in the scene in which, after the sudden defection of his actors, he has to take to the stage and act out the rest of the play himself.
The dancing was probably more precise in Ziegfeld’s original staging. Albert Horne leads the Orchestre Pasdeloup with a fine feel for Broadway style.
“Show Boat” is at the Theatre du Chatelet through Oct. 19. Information: http://or +33-1-4028-2840.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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