Show Boat

February 7, 2010By Pierre TranArchive
show boat, chatelet theater, paris

Show Boat not only incorporates comedy, romance, and dance numbers, but also a political disquisition on slavery, racism and more. Photo: Malin Arnesson

If you have a pulse that beats and a heart that feels, a lump will come to your throat when you hear “Ol’ Man River” sung by the slave dock worker Joe in the musical

show boat, chatelet theater, paris

Show Boat not only incorporates comedy, romance, and dance numbers, but also a political disquisition on slavery, racism and more. Photo: Malin Arnesson

If you have a pulse that beats and a heart that feels, a lump will come to your throat when you hear “Ol’ Man River” sung by the slave dock worker Joe in the musical Show Boat playing at the Théâtre du Châtelet.

If the bass solo of Otto Maidi, who plays the African-American Joe, fails to elicit any kind of reaction, I respectfully suggest you book an appointment with an ear specialist or perhaps your GP to check for signs of life. Maidi’s recital of “Ol’ Man River” on the musical’s opening night provided the first of many show stoppers, half an hour into the show, as the sweet music and the profound pathos of the lyrics inspired sustained applause from the audience. The song, which has been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Sam Cooke and the Beach Boys, was first immortalised by Paul Robeson.

Maidi alternates with Paul Madibeng for the role of Joe in the Cape Town Opera’s staging of the landmark 1927 musical. Jerome Kern wrote the lyrics and libretto, adapted from the novel of the same name by Edna Ferber. Oscar Hammerstein scored the music.

Show Boat incorporates comedy, romance, and dance numbers that provide color, spectacle and more music, butyou may be surprised to hear – it is also a political disquisition on slavery, racism, mixed marriage, unjust laws, suffering, separation and alcoholism. The abusive “N” word appears early in the show and, given that this is a South African production, the usage is all the more powerful.

I only knew two of the songs, “Ol’ Man River,” of course, and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” But the production is packed with less-well-known tunes that swept me along with their sheer musicality.

I was struck by the contrast with the star-studded production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, staged at Châtelet earlier this year. My companion loved the show and praised the lyrics but I was irritated by its lack of musicality. Apart from “Send in the Clowns,” right at the end of the production, I found the musical numbers untuneful.

Musicologists may shake their heads at my dumb ignorance, but I humbly contend that the musical is a popular medium and that the songs should please, even when the subject matter is as dark as that of Show Boat. That is precisely why Show Boat succeeds as both social and political commentary and as entertainment. It is carried along by the compositions of Hammerstein, who, as you may know, also wrote the music for The Sound of Music, the musical of all musicals.

If you put an ivory-handled derringer to my head and invited me to choose, apart from the performance of Maidi, I would say the star performer is Angela Kerrison, the soprano playing the role of the beautiful Julie, who is forced to leave her job as lead singer on the Cotton Blossom riverboat, because of Mississippi’s anti-miscegenation laws. When Kerrson sings, her voice is like a river of gold set to music.

Strange to think that while the character of Julie suffered humiliation and personal ruin because of the intolerance of racists, President Barack Obama is under attack by negationists who whine about birth certificates and birthplace. Obviously these nutters are motivated by racism but lack the guts to admit their xenophobia.

I liked many things about the play and this production: the critical eye on the actorly world; the thing that the gambler Gaylord, played by Blake Fischer, does with his hat; and the lyrical romanticism of the lovers Magnolia, played by Janelle Visagie, and Gaylord. My companion liked the funny one-man show staged by Cap’n Andy, played by Malcolm Terry.

One little gripe: I found the brass section of the orchestra a little too brassy, sometimes drowning out the voices on stage.

And through it all flows the mighty Mississippi River, the symbol of the ebbs and flows of history, destiny, mortality. Kern and Hammerstein transformed that majesty into music.

Show Boat made me glad to be alive.

Pierre Tran

Théâtre du Châtelet: Place du Châtelet, 75001 Paris. Métro: Châtelet. Tel.: 01 40 28 28 40. Through Oct. 19. www.chatelet-theatre.com

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