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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

SHOW BOAT (article first published : 2003-09-1)

The Durban Institute of Technology’s Department of Drama Studies is always to be commended for taking up courageous challenges in presenting major musicals with little budget, a small infrastructure and students as yet inexperienced in handling projects of this size.

Show Boat, the current production running in The Courtyard Theatre is the latest in director Debbie Lutge’s string of musicals that have stretched these resources to impressive limits. For the students, they provide a marvellous opportunity to appear in shows that have moved into the genre of classic musical theatre. With the sheer cost of mounting such productions becoming prohibitive by independent theatre companies, this may be one of the few chances they will get in their future careers.

With its cast of almost 90 students, Show Boat is exuberant and moves at a fair pace. The crowd scenes are controlled and disciplined although too often focus was drawn away when principals are singing important solo numbers. Tonight’s performance started off on a disturbing note as a member of the cast had to be rushed to hospital minutes before curtain up. I would like to commend the cast for the professional way they pulled together in the true theatrical spirit of “The show must go on”.

Notable performances came from Zanele Mzolo as a brave-spirited Magnolia, Ayanda Tsotsi in good voice as Julie and Sduduzo Majola as her long-suffering husband Frank. Impressing as the argumentative Captain and Parthy Hawkes were Tommy Kyd and Thandeka Malinga. Sthembiso Mbatha was a tall and imposing Gaylord and Siphesihle Zondi was moving and endearing as Joe. A young comedy actor in the making is Sifiso Ntozake and Lisa Venediger was a delightful Mrs O’Brien. Back on stage for the first time in years was Allen Auld as Vallon.

Josef van Schalkwyk has cleverly constructed a two-level set and introduced a staircase and a movable “stage” but I felt the concertina-ed panels became very intrusive at times. Good use is made of the auditorium approach and the large cast is well-deployed. Dana Hajiev was an excellent accompanist but the piano needs serious attention. Isn’t there any kind soul out there who could sponsor major repairs or present the Department with a new one?

In her director’s notes, Debbie Lutge explains that the musical was selected as it was suitable for the final year students and offered scope for a large cast. However, taking into consideration budget restraints, costuming and cast size, it was decided to transfer the setting from the American Southern states in the period of 1890 to South Africa during the apartheid government.

For me, this poses a question. Is it not time we took a production like Show Boat and performed it for its own intrinsic and historical value than try to set it in a South African or KZN context? I believe that South Africa has now become far more globally orientated and our young people are better in touch than their parents with the rest of the world through television, DVD’s, internet, email and cellphone SMS’s.

Surely it would be a more interesting learning process for students to explore the concept of a Mississipi showboat for its own merit or the characters involved, such as a riverboat gambler, and try to understand what makes them tick? Another training process would be to teach them an accurate Southern accent – in the years ahead, they will need to be versatile in accents in order to keep themselves in work.

The story of Show Boat has relevance here in South Africa, anyway, with its issues of mixed marriages and black bondage. For the rest – love, jealousy, a mother’s concern for her daughter’s wellbeing, despair turning a person to drink – these are universal themes and easily accessible.

The danger is that unless you completely reconstruct a concept that is tried, tested and extremely well-known - from choreography, musical style, costume and language - the end product stands in danger of neither paying tribute to the original nor impressing as an exciting new concept.

The show is worth seeing for the performances of the students – some of whom will move into the professional theatre scene at the beginning of next year. Performances nightly at 19h00 until September 6. – Caroline Smart




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