Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat is considered that most classic of American musicals. Written in 1927, it broke new territory, introducing serious issues such as racial segregation and mixed-race marriage to the musical form for the first time. The story is set in America’s Deep South, on the Cotton Blossom show boat as it sets sail on the Mississippi River, and examines the lives of the performers, dock workers, musicians and stagehands over a number of years. Now revived for a short tour, produced by the Wales Millennium Centre, in collaboration with Cape Town Opera, it is a comparatively rare opportunity to see the show on a fairly large scale in this country.

It’s this large scale approach that ensures that the quality of the singing and orchestral playing is a real hallmark of Janice Honeyman’s production. The Cape Town Opera company for Show Boat consist of a cast of 50, and a 30 piece orchestra plays Kern’s beautiful score. The sonorous  ‘Ol’ Man River’ is given a full-throated depth and resonance by Otto Maidi’s Joe that almost stops the show early in the first half, and fragments of the song are movingly reprised at later moments in this tale of shattered dreams and unfulfilled expectations. Show Boat’s other great standout song, ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’, is well rendered by Angela Kerrison’s Julie too. Elements of the show, such as the contrast between the rich and poor and discrimination, are touchingly relevant to the situation in South Africa, although the story is tinged with at least the hope of change in the future.

As is the case with many ‘older’ musicals, Show Boat is overlong (docking in at almost three hours) and would benefit from subtle – but no doubt forbidden – editing to enhance focus on the story. The passing of the years when the action shifts to the all-American Chicago World Fair in the second half needs to be clearer too – in addition to the visual clue of the daughter of Gaylord Ravenal (an excitable Blake Fischer) and Magdalene Minnaar’s staid Magnolia growing older. A greater contrast between the gritty and the glamorous would also give scenes such as the Charleston section sharper focus. The set – showing one side of the ship – is flexible enough to show life both on stage and off, albeit within reasonable budgetary constraints.

Lead roles are alternated on different evenings, but Nobuntu Mpahlaza’s droll Queenie and Catherine Daymond’s ambitious young Ellie were particularly well acted, as was Kerrison’s Julie, whose downfall is seen in well-focussed moments throughout (good, too, to hear her sing popular showtune ‘Bill’ in its original context). Elsewhere, some of the singers are obviously less-experienced actors, and some are ‘aged’ (both ways) less effectively than others. The chorus are hard-working and indispensable throughout, powerful in both their number and voice.

Show Boat is a challenging musical with its mix of frivolity and pain set against the deep blue backdrop of the Mississippi. Both nostalgic and lyrical, it’s an all too rare reminder of that long ago era – and despite the shortcomings, this production is well worth seeing, particularly for Otto Maidi’s triumphant ‘Ol’ Man River’.