LES Girls: Tick/Mitzi (Daniel Buys), Bernadette (David Dennis) and Adam/Felicia (Phillip Schnetler), giving it shtick.
What happens when three drag queens decide to turn a new page on life, armed with a bus named Priscilla, lots of shoes and an urge to strut their stuff in the Great Australian Outback? The world turns on its heel, glitter and tears characterise the moves and you, in the audience, probably really do have the most fun you can have in a theatre. The stage musical of Priscilla Queen of the Desert is simply as good as it gets.
When you watch the original eponymous film which first saw light of day in 1994, you get a very real sense of the scrappy mismatched wildness that characterises sheer unadulterated camp ramped up to the max. On paper, it might be difficult to imagine how this utterly fabulous film could be translated into a stage production, but you’re in safe hands: the international and local creative teams behind this project have produced something uniquely beautiful and majestic in its visual glossolalia and kaleidoscope of sexual jokes and nuance, replete with technological tricks and surprises all along the way.
The tour de force performance is that of David Dennis playing Bernadette, the character who is undergoing gender reassignment, has a Les Girls history and is nursing a broken heart beneath that spirit of fire and all those wigs. While Mitzi (Daniel Buys) and Felicia (Phillip Schnetler) are in fine form, great eyelashes and performative splendour, when Bernadette’s on stage, she’s where your eyes are. But the hero in the narrative itself is the character of Bob, a redneck with vision and sensitivity, played with true aplomb and sheer grit by James Borthwick. The kernel of the tale of Priscilla is not only about acceptance and the magic of lip syncing your way through life, it’s also about the meaning of love and reflects very astutely on how sex is secondary to what love is about.
But there’s no smarmy soppiness in this brightly coloured essay on the madness and freedom of being able to stand on top of a bus in the middle of a desert and belt your heart out to an aria from La Traviata. It’s Drag with a capital ‘D’, which is about all the vagaries and joys of performing on stage as it challenges gender expectations. By the same token, it doesn’t hold back on the ugly face of homophobia and gay bashing that remains a part of being different in the world.
Generally, a show with a big cast, lots of energy and all the tricks in the make up bag that you can conceive of, is a great hiding place for inferior performances. That doesn’t happen here: Priscilla hides no one, and the ensemble, from the three divas suspended from the sky (Londiwe Dhlomo-Dlamini, Candida Mosoma and Thembeka Mnguni) to the yellow dragons and acid green cream cakes and shocking pink paintbrushes all dancing in sequence, to the cameo which features the child of Mitzi, are utterly fabulous – the choreography is tight and on form, and the costumes are unbelievable in their wildness and wisdom, appropriately grotesque luridness, speedy changes and sense of freedom.
With a sound track that melds everything from the Village People to Tina Turner, Cindy Lauper to Kylie Minogue, Priscilla’s sound is pastiche with a tone of saccharine and it celebrates difference with abandon. It’s a show that will continue reverberating in your heart for months.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert: the Musical is based on the book by Stephan Elliott (who also wrote the original motion picture) and Allan Scott and directed and developed for the stage by Simon Phillips. Anton Luitingh is the resident director. It features designed by Brian Thomson (bus concept and set), Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner (costumes), Nicky Schlieper and Per Hörding (lighting), Michael Waters and Mark Malherbe (sound), Cassie Hanlon (make up), Bryan Schimmel (music director), Ross Coleman, Andrew Hallsworth and Duane Alexander (choreography) and Stephen Murphy and Charlie Hull (orchestration, musical arrangement and supervision). It is performed by James Borthwick, Donae Brazer, Daniel Buys, Taryn-Lee Buys, David Dennis, Londiwe Dhlomo-Dlamini, Darius Engelbrecht, Ryan Flynn, Michael Fullard, Zane Gillion, Nadine Grobbelaar, Craig Hawks, Chantal Herman, Samuel Hyde, Dirk Joubert, Thembeka Mnguni, Candida Mosoma, Tshepo Ncokoane, Henk Opperman, Jonathan Raath, Phillip Schnetler, Logan Timbre, Candice van Litsenborgh and Michael William Wallace. The child cast comprises Jack Fokkens, Jagger Vosloo and Alexander Wallace (Cape Town) and Ashton Mervis, Michael Fry and Levi Maron (Johannesburg). And the orchestra under Bryan Schimmel comprises Kevin Kraak (keyboard), Kuba Silkiewicz (guitars), Luca de Bellis (drums), Roger Hobbs (bass), Camron Andrews (reeds), Lorenzo Blignault (trumpet/flugelhorn), Nick Green (trombone), Zbigniew Kobak (trombone) and Pieter Ross (standby keyboard). It performs at Teatro, Montecasino Fourways until June 18. Visit www.showtime.co.za
PENGUINS Ahoy: Mr Popper (Samuel Hyde) with two of his wild young birds. Photograph courtesy facebook.
WHAT WOULD YOU do if you discovered your house to be filled with curious exotic birds from Antartica, who want nothing more than snuggling in your freezer or eating more raw fish than you can afford? Mr Popper (Samuel Hyde), a bit of an irresponsible adult, if ever there was, gets to bring havoc into the domestic bliss of his Stillwater home as he gets to experience real heartsore in taking adult decisions. Mr Popper’s Penguins, a favourite of American children, which debuts in South Africa, blends a range of personal challenges with strong light and colour, an overload of cuteness and some really homely values.
On many levels, it’s an ideal end of year family show, bringing together all the issues of responsibility and wildness, dreams and possibility, exploration and history and the exploitation of Hollywood into one story. But scripted in the 1930s, as it is, it tends to exude a lot of social blandness which might make contemporary children feel a little impatient or confused. Do young parents address one another as “Momma” and “Poppa” respectively, still? Perhaps not. Replete with all the fabulous attention to detail of set designer Stan Knight, and costume designer Sarah Roberts, which keeps you enthralled and looking at all the different elements, the work on the whole lacks the kind of tight choreographic cohesion we have seen in this theatre in the past and this hurts its overall fabric and texture.
From a sound perspective, Sanli Jooste in her role of the mommy of the tale often fights vocally with the piped music: and the casualty? Her lyrics. You can’t hear what she’s singing. When the idea that she’s going to be performing on a piano is mentioned, you may smile with gladness, feeling relief that a real instrument will adorn the stage, but sadly the cleavage of her mimed piano performance and the music itself resonates illogically.
It is, however, the children in the role of the eponymous birds themselves that lend the work the charm and specialness that really makes this production worth seeing. While you may have expected more “penguinnish” choreography in the stereotypical understanding of how a human child becomes a penguin, these little ones have been well tutored and carefully directed in the different idiosyncrasies that wild birds forced into a domestic context would generally manifest. Sizwe Sibotshiwe’s heart melting moment when he acknowledges his sheer unadulterated loneliness is the unequivocal gem moment of the piece, but it is the squad of five penguins that capture the froth and nuance of the piece, and lend it fire.
Mr Popper’s Penguins, featuring lyrics by Jody Davidson and music by Brett Schirer is based on the novel by Richard Atwater and Florence Hasseltine Atwater, and directed by Francois Theron. It features design by Clint Lesch (musical direction), Chantal Herman (choreography), Sarah Roberts (costumes), Stan Knight (set) and Jane Gosnell (lighting). It is performed by Bethany Joy Harding, Samuel Hyde, Thokozani Jiyane, Sanli Jooste, Naret Loots and Siphiwe Nkabinde, with a child cast comprising Clarise Bard, Dionysia Bizos, Danella Cassel, Larona Christopher, Hannah Cohen, Simone Greehy, Joshua Hibbert, Maya Izaki, Summer Kerwin, Katarina Lee-Cook, Rachel Lee-Cook, Aaralyn Muttitt, Gabriel Poulsen, Tannah Proctor, Mathew Rusznyak, Sizwe Sibotshiwe, Kgahliso Solomon, Aisha Thokoane, Litha Tuku, Thando Tuku and Kayleigh van Wyk [the children who featured in the performance upon which this review is premised were Larona Christopher, Hannah Cohen, Summer Kerwin, Aaralyn Muttitt, Tannah Proctor and Sizwe Sibotshiwe]. It performs at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, until December 23. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za
“Feed me, Seymour!” Little Shop of Horrors’s haunting signature line, with Alan Committie as the hapless Seymour. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatre.
In this Hairspray-meets-Faustus 1960s-redolent musical, you get to experience the schlock-horror tradition from which musicals like The Rocky Horror Picture Show were spawned and blending some fabulous rock ‘n’ roll, doowop and Motown moves, Little Shop of Horrors is a hugely palatable production which engages with issues like urban decay, parochialism and abuse all couched in an unashamedly bizarre tale of a flesh-eating plant named Audrey II, which grows spectacularly through the show’s run.
Generally, in a show of this nature, it would be the plant itself that is the central focus and main character – and drawcard – but in this production, the cast and the set win over, in spite of a very vociferous and wittily positioned ‘Audrey II’. The joint-narrator, comprising Ronette, Crystal and Chiffon, performed by Dionne Song, Chantal Herman and Lelo Ramasimong respectively absolutely excels: the three, almost acting like a Greek chorus, lend the work the frisson of horror and camped up flippancy or added narrative that keeps it human and colourful; relative newcomers on Johannesburg’s stages, they’re fabulously cast and have exceptional character and voice.
With sterling performances by Michael Richard as Mr Mushkin, a stereotypical New York Skid Row Jewish businessman and Alan Committie, the hapless Seymour, thankfully holding himself back from too much ad libbing, the production has a kind of acid green-bubble gum pink flavour and this is its drawcard, perhaps, but also its downfall: the work in this theatre offers a technologically-rendered sound which is simply too big for the space, and it lacks nuance. It’s like a colour-by-number show where every element has the same level of intensity. And the effect, after your brain has synced to its rhythm, is deadening.
In this production, it’s like everything is ramped up as loud as possible and while the cast loyally and bravely do their best to retain focus and audience interest, sometimes that blend of really loud piped music that you feel in your molars and amplified vocals is so loud that you cannot hear the words. It’s not clear why this has been done: surely the technology of such a well-established theatre as Montecasino’s Pieter Toerien has the wherewithal to contain nuance or to make provision for what happens to a venue when it’s full of people.
It’s a pity as it reduces this otherwise delightful production, which features an utterly beautiful set that really steals the show, to an irritating squeaky squawkiness, which might well drive you away at interval – as the empty seats in the second half attested to, shortly after opening night.
Little Shop of Horrors is directed by Steven Stead, based on the book by Howard Ashman. It is designed by Alan Menken (music), Evan Roberts (original tracks), Justin Southey (musical direction), Janine Bennewith (choreography), Greg King (set), Tina le Roux (lighting) and Mark Malherbe (sound); with puppets by Greg King and Wendy Henstock. It is performed by Alan Committie; Zak Hendrikz; Chantal Herman; Brandon Moulder; Adam Pelkowitz; Lelo Ramasimong; Michael Richard; Dionne Song; Audrey van Litsenborgh; Jaco van Rensburg and Tim Wells, and is at Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, in Fourways, until August 9. 0115111818 or http://www.montecasinotheatre.co.za