Kern - Showboat

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, Monday October 18 2010

Conductor: Albert Horne. Production: Janice Honeyman. Sets: Johan Engels. Choreography: Timothy le Roux. Costumes: Birrie le Roux. Magnolia: Janelle Visagie. Ravenal: Blake Fischer. Captain Andy: Malcolm Terry. Parthy: Diane Wilson. Julie: Angela Kerrison. Joe: Otto Maidi. Queenie: Miranda Tini. Orchestre Pasdeloup. Production from Cape Town Opera.

It was hard to tell whether this production of Showboat, from Cape Town, was deliberately, knowingly old-fashioned, au deuxième degré as the French say, or just plain outdated. The latter, I think, and the FT (unlike Le Monde and Le Figaro, whose critics have perhaps never been to Broadway: all the quotes in this report will be from the FT) seems to agree: “[A] ringard (naff) offering that rolls out garish sets and costumes, relentless choreography even when none is required and ham acting that is uncomfortably close to the parodies of hand-on-heart gestures mocked in the Cotton Blossom’s nightly shows.” Of course, you’re inclined to be indulgent – Cape Town Opera can’t be rolling in money. But “Janice Honeyman, the producer, suggests parallels with South Africa’s recent history but curiously fails to translate any of these intentions into her staging.” Exactly: you’d expect more political resonance from South Africa, not just those “garish” (but simple: a wall of cotton bales wheeled in from the sides, two steamboat smoke stacks at the rear…) sets and costumes: costumes that looked like costumes, not clothes, not to mention wigs that looked like wigs, not hair.

“If Choplin’s Châtelet wants to be more than a de luxe garage for toothless touring entertainments, it needs to engage more cutting-edge talent […] to show that musicals too can be more than woodenly acted museum pieces.” I agree with that too: the Châtelet is capable of doing better and often has. This was a provincial show, not one of one of the capital’s main theatres.

It’s probably illegal to say so, but the black people were best. Of all the soloists, Miranda Tini as Queenie seemed least to need her mike, and indeed I’m not sure she had one, unlike everyone else. The black chorus and dancers were excellent. Otto Maidi got plenty of applause for Ol’ Man River, but even he was afflicted by the evening’s woolly diction, and the white cast members, however sweet some of their voices, seemed to think being amplified was an excuse to mark instead of sing; as a result they were often drowned by the orchestral noise blaring from the loudspeakers. The excellent FT critic notes “the crude amplification system,” almost as bad here as in Sydney for The Pirates of Penzance, and continues: “The spoken dialogue also gets chewed up by the mikes, leaving even English-speaking patrons scrutinising the French supertitles for guidance.” Yup, that’s spot-on as well (I often wonder how the FT critic gets so much biting truth into so few words). We may as well not have had a live orchestra at all, just recordings, and as in Sydney, you had to watch lips to see who was speaking or singing.

Let’s hope My Fair Lady will be better. As the production is by Carsen, it may be. But as we all know, with live music theatre, there's no guarantee, we can only suck it and see.

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