(Mermaid Theatre, June 29th 2010, review by Augustina Dias)
Shadowball, brainchild of musician Julian Joseph and librettist Mike Phillips, and produced by the Hackney Music Development Trust, was nothing if not ambitious. To bring together 120 Hackney schoolchildren, with the help of outstanding singer Cleveland Watkiss and Julian Joseph’s quintet in a jazz opera-cum-education project, touching on the civil rights movement, baseball and music of 1920’s America was a brave and complex enterprise.
On the night, Watkiss was superb as iconic baseball player Satchel Paige, giving a commanding performance with his trademark smooth, velvety tones. Given the show’s many-faceted premise, he provided an on-stage presence that really grounded it, making the message and the music clear and engaging. It was evident that in the elder brother role of Paige he loved bringing the most out of his younger co-stars, at one point asking Charlie, a tearaway-turned-aspiring baseball hero: ‘Where’s your daddy?’ only to receive the disenchanted response, ‘I ain’t got one.’ The show deals as much with ideas of aspiration and motivation in the past as well as present. Nonetheless the absence of Watkiss’ voice and influence was keenly felt in his off-stage scenes.
Shadowball’s plot follows the interweaving paths of the black baseball stars and musicians of the time. Throughout is interspersed the story of Charlie, an underprivileged kid who wants to be a baseball star. His story of trying to achieve his life’s aim and overcoming the odds is set to the backdrop of segregation and the difficulties that black people experienced in everything they did. Several children gave standout performances in this multi-stranded storyline, notably Jordan Lema as Charlie and Abigail Dean as his mother. Her scene, persuading him to abandon baseball and come home was deeply heartfelt and compelling. The part of the baseball player Josh Gibson, played by Terrence Aidoo, was also impressively portrayed. Both he and Lema had a winning rapport with Watkiss in the role of Paige as the older, wiser player.
One group of people who must be mentioned for their jive-worthy performance is Julian Joseph’s quintet, who kept the entire show together and propelled it forward. Despite being on the show’s sidelines, their presence gave the plot much-needed vindication as a self-proclaimed ‘jazz opera’ – though even with them present and Watkiss’ commandeering recitative it is still easy for Shadowball to err on the side of a quaint musical. One of the strongest songs was ‘This Game’, an upbeat yet distinctly bluesy song, in which Paige muses to his fellow players about everything that baseball stands for to him and the black community, and really affirmed what the show was about.
Josephs, Phillips and Watkiss took on an enormous challenge by combining so many elements in to one production. The audience responded warmly to a thoughtful, candid show, yet I felt that it would have benefited from a tighter storyline. Nevertheless, it’s a great concept which bodes well for future collaborations by this team.
See also our PREVIEW