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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Blessed (and cursed) by the need to draw

AsherLev

YOU made this? The father (Alan Swerdlow), the mother (Louise Saint-Claire), and Asher Lev, the son (Robert Fridjhon). Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

IN THE AGONISING moment when Asher Lev’s parents are revealed as utterly out of place in Asher’s world, the tectonic plates of this classic Jewish art story which first saw light of day in 1972, shift. It is a pivot crafted with sheer brilliance that holds this whole play together. But sadly, this interpretation of arguably the go-to novel for any young person who is born into a religious context and blessed or cursed with a talent to create art, is not completely flawless.

The stigma of iconoclasm in a strictly religious Jewish context is a very real one, and adapting this work for stage is complicated. It’s about the challenges a young boy with a talent for art in Hassidic America in the 1940s faced, a tale which spoke directly to the heart of every reader who has ever felt the passion of creativity. The adaptation is by and large solid, but it does feature the narrator speaking directly to the audience quite a lot, which does affect the tone of the material, making it unwittingly seem comedic in its sense of timing. Similarly, there are anomalies in the choice of costume for Asher Lev (Robert Fridjhon), which greatly affects the credibility of the role.

For one thing, he wears a yarmulke embroidered in silver thread and made of glossy satin that speaks of a stream of superficial Jewish fashion that would most certainly not have been de rigueur with a Brooklyn Jew who digresses from the rich phalanx of monolithic values and traditions with which he was raised. For another, he wears a natty little waistcoat which places him uncomfortably between the world of his parents and that of his teacher, not allowing him to belong credibly to either.

But the clothes are the least of it. Indeed, this is not Fridjhon’s best role. We’ve seen him shine and eclipse the stage with his craft, his wit and his wisdom, but his performance here lacks the kind of fierce agony that would contain the horror of banishment so central to the novel. You don’t see the child of six, ten or 13 who is depicted in the text. You don’t see Lev growing before your eyes. You don’t see the kind of raw energy and fierce determination that you may have seen in John Logan’s Red, performed a couple of years ago in this city, with a similar theme revolving around a young artist and his older teacher.

Rather, you’re brother to tears by the pain and authenticity articulated by Alan Swerdlow in his various rabbinical roles, and Louis Saint-Claire as the mother, the model and the gallerist, in turn. To her credit, director Moira Blumenthal doesn’t stint on the use of Yiddish and Hebrew words or religious references, which retain something of the work’s authentic texture, though it could alienate an audience not familiar with some of the terms.

Supported by a mediocre set, which teeters with the aid of numerous thin vertical panels between abstraction and realism, the work contains allusions to the crucifixion painting that draws the threads of the story together to its difficult end, but these allusions are at times hammered home with an obviousness that hurts the story. Also, that moment of banishment that Asher, as a young man, faces, once he has overstepped the line separating art from the rest of his values, seems too low key in the face of the enormity it would represent to a real Asher Lev.

Whether or not you have read the original text, you might well leave this play wanting to seek out your inner Asher Lev and enable him or her to grow the kind of courage to make art that defies all logic and astonishes and frightens the world. And for this, the basic nub and richness of the story which remains intact, much of the flaws in the work become by and large forgivable.

  • My Name is Asher Lev is adapted for stage by Aaron Posner, based on the eponymous book by Chaim Potok. It is directed by Moira Blumenthal and performed by Robert Fridjhon, Louise Saint-Claire and Alan Swerdlow in the Studio Theatre, Montecasino complex, Fourways, until September 3. Call 011 511 1988 or visit pietertoerien.co.za

Venue fail in Little Shop of Horrors

"Feed me, Seymour!" Little Shop of Horrors's haunting signature line, with Alan Committie as the hapless Seymour. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatre.

“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