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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Life can be such a delightful Drag!

Priscilla

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

What a glorious show!

singin

LAUGHING AT CLOUDS: Grant Almirall plays Gene Kelly playing Don Lockwood. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatre

Quite often, in the arts, you find yourself experiencing something that trails a long history of film  and stage musicals, of iconic dance moves and schmaltzy narrative that has irrevocably slipped into cliché. Mostly, this kind of candy floss cuteness that is passed down from generation to generation gets tired not only in its message but in its delivery. Occasionally it gets spoofed. But very seldom, are you privileged enough to see something in this traditional line that has been so flawlessly and meticulously translated onto the stage with so much love that you can weep at its impeccable beauty and authenticity, as you are swept away on the lyrical romance that it promises – regardless of who you are. This is what you can anticipate in Singin’ in the Rain, currently onstage at Teatro.

We’re in New York. It’s 1927. The world is in a state of emotional and creative high – it’s just weathered a world war and feels on the cusp of another. There’s a frenetic sense of aggressive positivity and possibility in the air. And culture, by way of film, is shifting and shaking its own identity into terrain unmarked by the technology of the time: the talkie is going through its birth pangs.

Of course, Singin’ in the Rain was a 1952 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film about films that made the leads, Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds – in the respective roles of silent movie star, Don Lockwood and chorus girl Kathy Selden – seriously famous, effectively putting them on a par with the Mona Lisa and Van Gogh’s ear in terms of universal cultural recognition – but more than the performance of Kelly and Reynolds, it’s the choreography and the music and how they fit together that are quintessentially so happy that they’re unforgettable.

So, here we have a stage version of this enormous musical with a giant reputation and a whole bunch of theatre challenges – from a star who has to sing and talk squeakily and obnoxiously out of sync and out of tune (Lina Lamont, played by Taryn-Lee Hudson) to the imperative of really making it rain on stage. And they’ve done it. They’ve really done it.

Every little nuance, every little 1920s sashay and fringe, and every big gesture of love and hate, of spite and malice and new ideas is as frisky and fresh – and genuinely funny – as it was onscreen in 1952. This is a flawless show, which unapologetically presents values that may be considered politically inappropriate in our contemporary world, but it’s a show, headlined by Grant Almirall and Bethany Dickson as Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden respectively, that will leave you with a dance in your head and a sense of hope in your heart.

Featuring a cast of both seasoned and young performers, it’s a show that fits together like clockwork and runs seamlessly, but never feels staid or formulaic. It seems a very early comment to make in the year, but it’s sincere: if you treat yourself to one big musical this year, make it this one.

  • Singin’ in the Rain, directed by Jonathan Church, is written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and features songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. It is designed by Simon Higlett (set and costumes), Tim Mitchell (lighting), Ian William Galloway (video), Robert Scott (music supervisor), Larry Wilcox and Larry Blank (orchestration), Andrew Wright and Kelly Evins Prouse (choreography). It is performed by Duane Alexander Grant Almirall, James Borthwick, Bethany Dickson, Taryn-Lee Hudson, Anne Power, Mark Richardson and Steven van Wyk, supported by an ensemble comprising Claire Boswell, Thalia Burt, Mila de Biaggi, Stefania Du Toit, Ambre-Chanel Fulton, Richard Gau, Samuel Hyde, Kent Jeycocke, Catherine Lane, Michelle Lane, Sebe Leotlela, Anton Luitingh, Hope Maimane, Kenneth Meyer, Raquel Munn, LJ Nelson, Jarryd Nurden, Stephan van der Walt and Richard Vorster. It features a live orchestra under the direction of keyboardists Louis Zurnamer and Kevin Kraak: Jacobus van Wyk (drums), Graham Strickland (double bass), Carl Ashford (reed), Brian Smith (reed), Leagh Rankin (reed), Mike Blake (trumpet), Mike Magner (trumpet) and Nick Green (trombone). It is at Teatro, Montecasino until March 13. Visit http://www.pietertoerien.co.za
  • And what does this say about South African audiences? Read this piece.

Sound of excellent warm, fuzzy nostalgia

Hot off the press: Brigitta (Rachelle Weiss), Gretl (Ansie du Plessis) and Liesl von Trapp (Carmen Pretorius) examine the poster for their 1938 festival performance, with uncle Max Detweiler (James Borthwick). PHOTOGRAPH BY PAT BROMILOW-DOWNING.

Hot off the press: Brigitta (Rachelle Weiss), Gretl (Ansie du Plessis) and Liesl von Trapp (Carmen Pretorius) examine the poster for their 1938 festival performance, with uncle Max Detweiler (James Borthwick). PHOTOGRAPH BY PAT BROMILOW-DOWNING.

A knee-jerk response to the idea of another production of the Sound of Music, the inimitable squeaky clean musical that was played in many a household in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s on LP records, is a groan. Do we really need to revive these old musicals with their outdated social values and silly costumes?
We do, actually. The sleek efficiency with which this production has been streamlined, from grand set manoeuvres to a deep respect for the time-hewn music, unequivocally places The Sound of Music on a critical par with Jersey Boys and Chicago, for instance, award-winning musicals that graced our stages in past years.
Jeremy Sams, an English director with West End credentials, yields a remarkably beautiful show, attesting unapologetically to the wholesomeness of the original; he’s supported by indefatigable Louis Zurnamer, who heads up a 13-piece orchestra in the pit.
Against a backdrop of the Anschluss on the cusp of the Second World War, glancing head on at the moral choices facing ordinary Austrians at the time, the production would not exist without the children.
Thus it is delicately structured to bring about juxtaposition of hard and soft – unsympathetic Nazis and singing children, a plethora of nuns, a love story that ends in marriage and the landscape between Austria and Switzerland. Not to forget the Edelweiss: the hardy white little mountain flower of the region.
Bethany Dickson in the lead, who wowed audiences in Sunset Boulevard, is as blatantly fresh-faced as Julie Andrews was in the original film; she makes you fall in love with the idea of Maria who makes the nuns laugh and who softens the heart of a man in permanent trauma, armed with her carpet bag and guitar. Baron Von Trapp – Christopher Plummer in the original – is played by Andre Schwarz, with great suaveness.
But what gives this particular production its critical edge is an almost sleight of hand sense of intricacy and authenticity. The Nazi presence is devastatingly real and the manner in which the abbey of nuns is brought to life on stage, is simply breathtaking, from not only a lighting and set perspective, but also supported by the rich voice of Janelle Visagie as the Mother Abbess, who incites a confused Maria to follow her dreams.
Featuring performers ranging from seasoned James Borthwick, Mike Huff and Malcolm Terrey, to fresh faces like that of Mikah Jaye Smith (9), Lia Solomon (10) and Rachelle Weiss (11), the production is a sheer delight from beginning to end.
And the songs? The songs are of everyone’s favourite things. They’re not “hits” in the popular culture sense of the word; instead they embrace emotional comfort that resonates with all good things from your childhood, like peanut butter sandwiches, warm ProNutro cereal and being tucked in bed during a thunderstorm. This beautiful slice of nostalgia will warm the cockles of any heart.

  • The Sound of Music by Rodgers and Hammerstein, directed by Jeremy Sams is at Teatro, Montecasino Fourways, until June 2.
  • A version of this review appeared in last week’s issue of the SA Jewish Report: http://www.sajr.co.za