Knocked out by King Kong

king-kong

TOP of the world: King Kong (Andile Gumbi) stands his ground. Photograph by Jesse Kramer.

IT WAS THE show that launched the international careers of such performers as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba and the Manhattan Brothers. King Kong. It’s been labelled iconic and groundbreaking, and frissons of its great potency filtered through the ether long before the Fugard Theatre’s season of this show took to the boards. A tale of love and boxing, with exquisite harmonies and clarinet riffs to make you weep, it saw light of day in 1959, changed the game plan of what musical theatre was in this country and has not been performed in entirety until now. Does this version do this glamorous history and all the urban myths around the work justice? In short, it doesn’t.

Skating on the momentum of the 1959 production of the show, this version of it has some truly beautiful moments and some utterly delicious performances, but you watch it and quietly wonder whether part of the work’s original charm did not perhaps have a lot to do with the novelty of being a show from apartheid-riddled Africa. Was it not perhaps the exoticism of the moment that gave Makeba and others their ticket to a real career?

Richly enfolded in the complicated beauty of the 1950s, in terms of clothing style, dance ethos and an energy of simmering protest peppered with a lot of racial legislation, this tale based on the life of boxer Ezekiel Dlamini is a cautionary one of hubris and talent. It’s a yarn that reflects on petty jealousies and the vulnerability of an ego in a world beset with tsotsis and small-town shebeen queens. It’s a series of love stories, interwoven with boxing successes and failures and one in which an idol is lionised and then destroyed by his own society.

But the work is less about the wows of the story. Billing itself as a jazz opera, it does, indeed feature, some beautiful music, which has shifted into classic South African status, and yet, as a musical entity, it doesn’t hold together tightly, and feels a little more like a play with music incidents.

Looking beyond the song and dance sequences, the performers are not supported by the creative team in a way that enhances their physical presence on stage. Whether it is odd lighting decisions, costumes with the dowdiness factor ramped up as far as possible, or peculiar staging instructions, something is lost in the capacity of performers such as Andile Gumbi (who plays the eponymous boxer) to hold the audience. You will love looking at him – he’s physically beautiful, but there’s something amiss in how he connects with the stage, the work and the audience. The more you look at him, the more it’s clear that this omission is not his fault; it rests on design decisions.

This is not the case, however, when it comes to Sne Dladla in the role of the barber, Pop, who tells the story. Known as a stand up comic in his own capacity, Dladla reveals a smooth sense of poetry in his delivery that you might not have experienced before; he embraces his character with a full heart that will have you yearning for more lines for him. Similarly, Dolly Louw, a member of the female ensemble. She exudes such delightful presence every time she’s on stage, that your heart and eyes drift in her direction and remain with her, lapping up her enthusiasm.

Lerato Mvelase in the role of Petal, the thwarted young lady with a very fond eye indeed for the King, is another case in point. Armed with an utterly magnificent voice, a dowdy cardigan and some horn-rimmed specs, she’ll make your ears prick up, but keep you guessing in terms of her stage persona. Opposite a magnificently voiced Nondumiso Tembe in the role of slinky, sexy Joyce, and balanced by the powerful vocal presence of Ntambo Rapatla as Miriam, there is beautiful harmony in the work, but it is not exploited visually.

Indeed, there are times when you look at this production and cannot see anyone in it. The lighting design is centralised and overall constantly leaves cast members in the dark. There’re moments where their singing voices reach with loneliness from darkened corners, taking time for you to realise who is actually performing.

But the biggest problem with this work which looms in your face throughout, is the set. As you take your seat in the theatre you might have a moment that teeters with your sense of orientation: it looks like you are in the Fugard Theatre.

And there’s the rub: the Fugard boasts a stage that is considerably smaller than that of the Mandela. It’s less deep, more vertical. The set, like a huge rusted machine with many different doors and hiding places, is very in-your-face. And clearly, it comes directly from the Fugard, with nary an alteration. Indeed, as such, it squeezes the breathing space out of the stage itself. And while there are moments where nuance is evoked in the pockets of the set, by and large, something is lost in the telling of this tale of greed and misfortune, ice creams and vulnerability, simply because everything is hammering on your eyeballs from the same distance.

Having said all of this, the live band, the boxing ring scenes and much of the choreography hold this work together with a compelling energy. You will leave the auditorium whistling the production’s theme songs, but not with the kind of fire in your heart or belly that comes of having seen true greatness.

  • King Kong: Legend of a Boxer is written for stage by Pat Williams based on the book by Harold Bloom, and directed by Jonathan Munby and Mdu Kweyama. It features creative input by Todd Matshikiza (original music), William Nicholson (additional lyrics), Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (additional music arrangements), Gregory Maqoma and Richard Lothian (choreography), Paul Wills (set), Tim Mitchell (lighting), Birrie Le Roux (costumes), Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba and Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (musical directors) and Mark Malherbe (sound). It is performed by Sne Dladla, Rushney Ferguson, Andile Gumbi, Ben Kgosimore, Dolly Louw, Barileng Malebye, Lungelwa Mdekazi, Namisa Mdlalose, Aphiwe Menziwa, Athenkosi Mfamela, Given Mkhize, Lerato Mvelase, Sibusiso Mxosana, Siphiwe Nkabinde, Edith Plaatjies, Sabelo Radebe, Ntambo Rapatla, Tshamano Sebe, Sanda Shandu, Nondumiso Tembe, Shalom Zamisa and Joel Zuma, supported by a live band: Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba (band leader/bass), Blake Hellaby (keyboard), Siphiwe Shiburi (drums), Billy Monama (guitar), Lwanda Gogwana and Joseph Kunnuji (trumpets), Zeke le Grange (tenor sax), William Hendricks (alto sax, clarinet) and Siya Makuzeni (trombone) at the Mandela Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until October 8.
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Oliver brings the sheen and texture of Industrial Age London to Parktown, seamlessly

"He asked for more?!" with Samuel Hertz as Oliver, Kayli Elit Smith and Miles Petzer as Mr and Mrs Bumble and Ben Kgosimore as the Beadle. Photograph courtesy www.jozikids.co.za

“He asked for more?!” with Samuel Hertz as Oliver, Kayli Elit Smith and Miles Petzer as Mr and Mrs Bumble and Ben Kgosimore as the Beadle. Photograph courtesy http://www.jozikids.co.za

Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist is one of those stories that has been consumed by the children’s theatre industry, thanks in part to the eponymous West End and Broadway musicals of the 1960s featuring glorious songs by Lionel Bart. It’s also been deemed a children’s story because the main protagonist is but 9 years old. In truth, the tale is a quirky one, bringing together the harsh contradictory morals and deeply violent behaviour endemic to the squalor of 19th century English society. In this version of the work, Francois Theron yields a sterling mastery that balances between the heaviness of the original piece and how the musicals injected sweetness and readability into it.

Part of the work’s sublime success is through the creation of its texture; the stuff of which Industrial Age London is made. From the signage on the walls to the raggedy and posh curtains which signify the set change, life is germinated and fleshed out in the set, costumes and the casting of the work.

Showcasing Kayli Elit Smith in the role of Nancy, opposite Luciano Zuppa as the inimitable Fagin and Ben Kgosimore, the core of the story is embraced with a sense of crafted verity that will keep you spellbound, whether you are five years old and have a scant understanding of the work’s tensions, dynamics and trajectory, or you are fifty and have read the original 15 times. Smith has a powerful stage presence and she gives the fragile, tragic heroine Nancy the spine and guts to make her leap out of the book and onto the stage.

Zuppa projects a roly-poly Fagin, offering insight into the sinister nuances that such a character upholds. He’s fun, yet immoral, bad yet it’s difficult to pinpoint his level of evilness, in contradistinction, for instance, with Kgosimore’s Bill Sykes, who is so chillingly cold, his very presence makes your hair stand on end.

There’s a satisfying interplaying of cast members and the children are beautifully co-ordinated to sing and dance and interact with the theatre’s appurtenances which brings grubby suburban London into Parktown, seamlessly. On opening night, Gabriel Poulsen was Oliver. He embraces the realities of this small boy in a world rotten with other people’s greed that rendered him an able cog in their evil plans, with an integrity that belies his extreme youth.

But more than all of this, the story of the workhouse foundling Oliver Twist is told from the inside out and the novel only reveals the grand narrative at the end, where you encounter Agnes Leeford and understand who Monks is. Arguably, the only version of this work which turns it upside down is the 1999 mini-series of the work, written by Alan Bleasdale and featuring such luminaries as Robert Lindsay, Julie Walters and Keira Knightley, among others. And what is revealed when the audience is put in the know, while the narrative unfolds, is the fabric of the story is robust enough to take such a turn about.

Sadly, this is where the National Children’s Theatre’s version stumbles a little: it sticks to the original sequence of events and omits the more graphic ones. Granted, the tale is harsh and terrifying. Murder is part of the tools used to tell it. It would be inappropriate to present this level of horror to young audience members, but Theron has begun his version with the child telling his own story: this adds an inestimable value and depth to the material, but is not followed through in the second half of the work. Rather, after interval, we fast-forward through Twist’s tribulations in coming to terms with his extraordinary childhood. Nancy is magicked off the scene and Oliver becomes a child adopted and everyone lives happily ever after: if you know the narrative well, or have been watching the play carefully, a couple of untied threads peek through.

Overall, this is forgivable: The Adventures of Oliver Twist is an exceptional production that blends sweetness with harshness in a way that never jars. But be warned, the tale wriggles and squirms and diversifies and changes tack frequently. It’s not all song and dance and children under the age of 8 might become restless or bewildered.

  • The Adventures of Oliver Twist, based on the novel by Charles Dickens is adapted and directed by Francois Theron with design by Rowan Bakker (musical supervisor); Nicol Sheraton (choreographer); Graham Brown (set); Willie van Staden (scenic set up); Jane Gosnell (lighting) and Chriselda Pillay (costumes). It is performed by Teekay Baloyi, Ben Kgosimore, Miles Petzer, Schoeman Smit, Kayli Elit Smith and Luciano Zuppa, with four alternative child performers playing Oliver: Samuel Hertz, Gabriel Katz, Gabriel Poulsen and Max Stern, and three alternate child ensemble casts comprising: Claire de Korte, Lethabo Mwase, Boitumelo Phaho, Kathryn Price, Paige Schmidt and Isobel Shires; Kathleen Clark, Tlholego Mabitsi, Tlhopilwe Mabitsi, Tlhotlego Mabitsi, India Milne, Julia Smith and Casey Watson; and Nandipha Backler, Yarden Dagan, Pascalle Durand, Talitha Komen, Tyler Komen and Ricci Waksman. It is at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until July 19. 011-484-1584 or nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za

Mythomania: give us more magic

 

 

Something beautiful this way comes: Nomathamsanqa Mhlakaza and Boitumelo Magolekgo in OCA, choreographed by Oupa Sibeko. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

Something beautiful this way comes: Nomathamsanqa Mhlakaza and Boitumelo Magolekgo in OCA, choreographed by Oupa Sibeko. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

When you enter the auditorium and take your seat, there is such a fantastic promise of magic in this seven-piece production, your senses are tweaked and attuned to seeing wonderful incarnate. There’s a squadron of origami creatures of all shapes and sizes floating in the air, and a sphere filled with feathers. There’s a bit of a dodgy ramp made of what looks like papier mâché, but the magic of the origami birds make you forgive that.

But there’s also music, so pervasive and jarringly loud and tonally repetitive, you feel your nose might start bleeding. The Downstairs Theatre is a relatively small space. It conveys an intimacy that could be worked with, particularly in a production that plays on your inner chords with magical stories and old myths, but someone made a decision to turn the volume up. And it’s a bad one: the sound is so pervasive it almost prevents you from seeing the dancers.

But see them, you must: while most of these performers are obviously not trained in the discipline of dance – they move their limbs without drawing the movement into their diaphragms and souls – there’s a sense of dignified beauty in several pieces, which should push further. The descriptions of the myths represented here that you find in the programme notes are delightful, but in several pieces, the relationship between work and words doesn’t resonate.

The highlight is a duo between Persephone and Hades. Called Seeds of Life, Seeds of Death, it’s choreographed by Amy de Wet and performed by Shannon Tootla and Jonathan Young. Without knowing the intricacies of the myth or the manner in which this myth is reworked, this is a scene of love, life and anger, featuring a pomegranate. Touching and resounding with a reflection on the Adam and Eve tale, it’s a power relationship articulated around two interesting performers with great possibility. The give and take between them is shiny in its directness and compellingly authentic in its sense of honesty.

In OCA, which is choreographed by Oupa Sibeko and performed by Nomathamsanqa Mhlakaza and Boitumelo Magolekgo, an immensely powerful relationship is articulated. The work speaks of a woman and her sister who seems disabled. And it’s beautiful. But its correlation with a mother and child and a child impaired with the stigma of albinism, as the programme explains, is not developed with sufficient conviction.

The pieces in this project involving several dancers, including Kaangs Creation and the Rock of Sisyphus have moments of idiosyncrasy and interest, but the individual dancers seem too inexperienced to carry their cameo roles with a sense of authority that should catch your eye. In the former, in particular, the dancer who takes the role of the Mantis God comes across as a doleful beetle with a baleful gaze in an uncomfortable costume, which just saddens the piece.

Costumes also have a spark of something, but in some of the works, like Obanje Abiku, which derives from West African values, the colour coordination of the dresses actually cheapens the work’s impact – as do features like great big green bows at the back of the Mothers’ costumes in the Sisyphus work.

Mythomania has some utterly beautiful moments, and completely well developed transitions between pieces, but there are not enough of these moments. The work in entirety is curious and interesting and has fantastic potential, but the scariness of magic in a production is not sufficiently probed or prodded, either through the dancers’ techniques or through ostensible gimmicks in the tale.

  • Mythomania, a Wits University production, features choreography by Joni Barnard, Kyle de Boer, Amy de Wet, Luke Draper, Alicia Hofmeyr, Gaosi Raditholo, and Oupa Sibeko; performances by Justine Barger, Joni Barnard, Grace Barnes, Meagan Connolly, Samantha de Jager, Marion de Pontes, Skye Gibson, Anna Star Hlali, Ben Kgosimore, Rachel Makatile, Nthabiseng Malaka, Boitumelo Magolekgo, Francesca Matthys, Nonkululeko Mduli, Nomathamsanqa Mhlakaza, Candice Modiselle, Abigail Molemo, Palesa Mannakgotla, Dimakatso Motholo,Simphiwe Ndhlebe, Danielle Oosthuizen, Kendal Petersen, Oupa Sibeko, Kim Taylor, Shannon Tootla, Andrea van der Kuil, Lauren Vankeirsblick, and Jonathan Young; and design by Catherine Dickinson and Kamini Soobben (set); Catherine Dickinson, Claudia Hansen and Kamini Soobben (costumes); and Abigail Thatcher (lighting). It performs at Wits Downstairs Theatre until August 16.