Showboat, Wales Millennium Centre

Cape Town Opera's production is vivid and energetic, says Rebecca Franks

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Showboat, Wales Millennium Centre
Otto Maidi as Joe in Cape Town Opera's Show Boat
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Cape Town Opera burst onto the British music scene with lively productions of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess in 2009 and the newly composed Mandela Trilogy back in 2012. After two years away, the company is back with yet another bubbling show - not an opera, this time, but the classic Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein musical of 1927, Showboat.

Just how well can opera companies perform musicals? Of course Showboat isn't a modern Andrew Lloyd Webber number, but a piece written when early American opera was finding its feet, a melting pot of folk, opera, jazz and ragtime. It follows Scott Joplin's ragtime opera Treemonisha (1910), predates Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1935) – the first great American opera? – and joins Bernstein's much later West Side Story (1957) in being a work that's been tackled both by musical theatre and opera singers. A hit at its premiere, Showboat's integration of music and story and bold exploration of racism made it stand out from the crowd, paving the way for the golden era of Broadway musicals.

Set on Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi riverboat, Showboat spans 40 years as it follows the lives of the boat's owners and show's performers. In this production, the twin steam funnels of the boat are the focus of the naturalistic set for much of the time, with stars-and-stripes flags marking the move to Chicago in later years. The cast was dressed in colourful period costume that takes us from the buttoned-up, long-skirted late-19th century to the glitzy flapper dresses of the 1920s. Thoughtfully directed by Janice Honeyman, the production featured energetic dancers and chorus that showed off this company's versatility. Gareth Jones ably took the musical helm.

In the romantic lead roles, the likeable, smooth-toned tenor Blake Fischer was the gambling, high-life loving Gaylord, finding beauty in his duets with Magdalene Minnaar's Magnolia – who elsewhere didn't always avoid mannerism in her acting, but had a silvery grace. Actor Graham Hopkins took on the speaking role of Captain Andy – Magnolia's father – with verve and wit, ably partnered by Anthea Thompson as his long-suffering wife, Parthy.

Catherine Daymond's portrayal of the brash, opportunistic Ellie was spot-on, supported by her sidekick Frank, an amusing Brandon Lindsay. Angela Kerrison was an elegant, intriguing Julie, the Cotton Blossom's leading lady whose skin colour and marriage to Steve (Stephen Jubber) lost her her first job, and her love of alcohol her second. Remarkable as Showboat's depiction of interracial marriage was at the time, watching it today I couldn't help wondering whether it might not have been more interesting to follow the fortunes of Julie and Steve, who had to battle society's prejudices, rather than the weak and meek wills of Gaylord and Magnolia.

Enough 'what if's. The stand out performances here came from the lively, characterful Nobuntu Mpahlaza as Queenie and Otto Maidi as Joe. His 'Ol' man River' was full of soul and worldly-wise acceptance, his resonant, heartfelt tones stilling the audience as they cast their spell.

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