Night of a thousand stars

Evita

BIRTHPANGS of Argentinean freedom: Che (Jonathan Roxmouth) and ensemble cast. Photograph courtesy of http://www.stageandscreen.co.za

ONE OF THE toughest aspects of mounting a West End and Broadway hit musical that has iconic film status is probably also one of the production’s biggest blessings: everyone knows the lyrics to the Lloyd Webber and Rice production Evita so well, they’re bawling them out all the time as the work unfolds. But by the same token, the comparisons with the film are begged with abandon. And this does hurt what you can currently see on stage.

While director Harold Prince is at pains to reinvent many of the scenes, which obviously contains a pared down cast and similarly tightened effects such as choreography, in many ways, you do feel as though you are watching a stage version of the 1996 film which starred Madonna and was directed by Alan Parker, and indeed, in areas where the narrative feels foxed by special effects, you find yourself relying on your knowledge of the trajectory of Evita Perón’s life, as depicted in that film, to fill in the blurry parts.

The other thing you might find yourself reverting to is the 2010 version of this production, also staged at Montecasino, which was memorably tight and impeccable in its focuses, in its group scenes and in its choreography. While comparisons are always odious, if you did see that earlier production which had Angela Kilian opposite James Borthwick in the main roles, you will appreciate the discrepancies.

Borthwick is a performer who lent the character of Juan Perón the necessary gravitas, cruelty, flawedness and imposing visual value that Robert Finlayson unfortunately doesn’t have. It has to do not so much with the performance, but with the performer’s age and physical presence that plays into one of the reasons why Eva Duarte’s relationship with Perón was so shocking to many: he was more than 20 years her senior. An important military figure. A guy with stature. This production focuses on the sexiness of the couple which feels a little out of sync in terms of the story being told.

Similarly, Emma Kingston in the role of Evita has been compromised in terms of the way in which her body feels truncated by the choice of shoes she wears and the way in which the lighting embraces her. Yes, clunky shoes were worn in the 1940s, but there is but one pair of shoes she sports, toward the end of the production that lends her dignity rather than clunkiness, as do the rest of them. She also feels compromised when her voice is stretched to the higher registers of the demands of the role and it is not consistently clear whether this is a voice or an amplification issue, but you hear the words caught in a state of shriek which isn’t pleasant. The character’s agony toward the end of her life is also played with a stylised crudeness which doesn’t lend credibility to the scenario. Evita died of cervical cancer and the bending and pushing Kingston articulates with her body makes it feel like a digestive issue.

Having said all of that, the interfolding of genuine footage in this production renders moments like the famous balcony scene at Casa Rosada which sees Evita as Argentina’s controversial yet generally well-loved First Lady, is simply breath-taking. There’s a relationship between the real woman and the real story that is informed and energised by the footage. The set is almost architectural in its refinement, but is splintered illogically by lights mounted into the floor. So, you sometimes experience strobe-evocative flashing moments which are about sensation rather than pragmatics, and you also experience ghostly reflections from these ground-based lights that bounce off the rest of the set rather distractingly.

One of this work’s magic ingredients is a nuanced and strong cameo performance by Isabella Jane in the role of the mistress who must be disposed of, when Eva comes on the scene. Another is an incredibly strong ensemble cast which includes performers such as Mike Huff, Adam Pelkowitz, LJ Neilson, Keaton Ditchfield and others, as well as a very well-placed children’s cast, which lends the work an irrevocably wise texture that makes you understand the atmosphere in an Argentina replete with protest, poverty and struggles.

The cherry on top of the work is the narrator, Che, played very ably by Jonathan Roxmouth. It is in this representation, replete with a lit cigar and a whole rash of nuances that you get to understand the underbelly of the story being told here, which doesn’t hold back on glorying in the sexiness of the era and the messiness of its values. It’s a beautiful role that is both sinister and informative, but lends this musical the kind of kick that balances the historical, tango-scented magic of the original sound track.

  • Evita with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, is directed by Harold Prince and Dan Kutner. It features creative input by Louis Zurnamer (musical director), Guy Simpson (musical supervisor), Mick Potter and Shelley Lee (sound), Richard Winkler and Gary Echelmeyer (lighting), Larry Fuller and R. Kim Jordan (choreography), David Cullen (orchestration) and Timothy O’Brien (production). It is performed by Robert Finlayson, Isabella Jane, Emma Kingston, Anton Luitingh, Jonathan Roxmouth and an ensemble comprising Cindy-Ann Abrahams, Danielle Bitton, Ivan Boonzaaier, Ruby Burton, Beverley Chiat, Kiruna-Lind Devar, Keaton Ditchfield, Stefania du Toit, JD Engelbrecht, Ambre-Chanel Fulton, Richard Gau, Darren Greeff, Earl Gregory, Hayley Henry, Tamryn van Houten, Mike Huff, Kent Jeycocke, Hope Maimane, Thabso Masemene, Carlo McFarlane, LJ Neilson, Adam Pelkowitz, Mark Richardson and Trevor Schoonraad. It is supported by a children’s cast: (Johannesburg) Nicole du Plessis, Pascalle Durand, Fadzai Ndou, Shayla McFarlane, Victoria Levick, Levi Maron, Patrick McGivern, Sean Ruwodo, Cameron Seear, Mikah Smith, Benjamin Wood and Indigo Wood; and (Cape Town) Alon Adir, Jack Fokkens, Mira Govender, Emily Johnston, Charné Jupp, Kate Richards, Lia Sachs, Shani Sachs, Morgan Santo, Tamlyn Stevens, Matteas van Blerk and Daniel Wolson, and the live orchestra under the baton of Louis Zurnamer comprises Stefan Lombard, Rowan Bakker and Drew Bakker (keyboard), Cobie van Wyk (percussion), Donny Bouwer/Michael Magner (trumpet), Bez Roberts, Jurie Swart or Nick Green (trombone), Ryan Solomons/Robert Jeffrey (guitar), Jason Green/Graham Strickland (bass) and James Lombard (drums). It is at Teatro, Montecasino, Fourways, until November 26, and at Artscape Opera House, Artscape theatre complex, Cape Town, from December 2 until January 7, 2018. Visit pietertoerien.co.za
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The victory of Spartacus, in broad brush strokes

Andile Ndlovu is Spartacus. Photograph courtesy www.mediaupdate.co.za

Andile Ndlovu is Spartacus. Photograph courtesy http://www.mediaupdate.co.za

From the first opening bars of this extraordinarily powerful South African ballet, you get riveted to the score, the choreography and the story, almost exactly in that order, as the monstrous work unfolds. Spartacus of Africa is a mammoth achievement, the likes of which South African audiences don’t often get to experience.

In the authoritative hands of ancestral spirit Isenyaya, performed by David Krugel, the basic structures of the story are explained, with the potent combination of gesture, costume and body all swirled together in a comprehensive and highly readable intelligent mass. He tells you where to look and who is important in an approach arguably as iconic and convincing as that of Italian Renaissance painter Giotto, taking your eye unequivocally through the crowd to the situation at hand.

And while you might not grasp the subtleties and intricacies of the story of Spartacus, king of Thrace, which first saw light of day as a ballet in Russia in the 1950s, you are so well and closely attuned to the broad brushstrokes of a military tale of love and war, murder and victory that the interstices which fall away do not matter.

Of course, the added splendour of a live orchestra lend the spectacle that much more presence and muscle – sadly the option of piped music supporting a grand ballet is something we have become attuned to, as South African dance audiences, and the impact of real instruments being played by real people offers such a precious and timeless reflection on the ballet, it is hard to conceive of the option of reverting back to the technological option.

Spartacus of Africa does embrace a lot of colonialist concerns, and the notion of African tribes head to head with one another is presented with unapologetic directness. In watching these groups at war, you might occasionally become confused: sometimes the costumes of the opposing peoples is not completely distinct, but this too, in the bigger picture does not matter.

It is the manner in which the characters of the principles are developed and articulated that forms some of the strongest building blocks of this work, which invest individual dancers with the power to command the whole huge auditorium: For instance, the presence of Spartacus (danced by Andile Ndlovu, associated with the Washington Ballet, who boasts Ballet Theatre Afrikan roots under the guidance of Martin Schonberg) in all his vehemence and quirkiness is something conveyed through strong characterisation and unbelievable fine proportions of body in relation to other bodies, leaps beyond the restraint of logic and gesture that make him a believably victorious hero.

Veronica Paeper’s Spartacus is an achievement, not so much because there are swaths of cast members – at times, there are 90 dancers on stage concurrently – but because she offers such an intense and beautifully developed understanding of the big outlines which form the drama. And, of course, because of the live music.

Spartacus of Africa is choreographed by Veronica Paeper and David Krugel. It features the music of Aram Kachaturian and design by KMH Architects (set), Dicky Longhurst (costumes), Nicholas Michaletos (lighting). The version I watched was at the Nelson Mandela Theatre and the orchestra, under the baton of Paul Hoskins was the Johannesburg Philharmonic. On the evening I saw it, it was performed by Elzanne Crause, Michaela Griffin, Willem Houck, David Krugel Lwanele Masiza and Andile Ndlovu, in the principal roles and a company drawn from dance companies nationally, as well as two student casts for the Johannesburg and Cape Town seasons. It performs at the Artscape Opera House in Cape Town until July 12: 0214109800 or www.artscape.co.za