Knocked out by 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.

Are we home, yet?


WHAT happens now? Grace (Lynelle Kenned) en route to a foreign country to escape a war in Africa. Photograph by Oscar O’Ryan

<<Warning: This production contains strobe lights and lights focused directly on the audience>>

THE TRICK OF writing good material for a stage production is not about packing a story full of so much detail that it develops narrative indigestion, and then focusing interrogation-strong lights on your audience from time to time. It’s about the age-old principle of less is more.

The much-anticipated brand new musical Calling Me Home is, as it is billed, a story of hope, a story of love and a story of home. But it’s also a story of drugs and shallow stereotypes, a story of war and Africa, a story of jail and betrayal, a story of class awareness and poverty, a story of prostitutes and the mafia, a story of woman abuse and exile, and the list goes on. In short, it tries very earnestly to do far too many things concurrently and sadly spins way out of its depth very quickly.

To add insult to injury, it’s a very long show, clocking in at close to three hours, including the interval. It’s this long because the story is pedantic and begs for the decisions of a strong editor. The songs are also annoyingly repetitive. Featuring strong voices which have earned their stripes in the local theatre industry, including Lynelle Kenned, Samantha Peo and Anthony Downing, the work doesn’t respect the individual personae of the performers, and its thunderball of a story which is bombastic as it is clichéd, featuring bland choreography – particularly for the women, and lyrics which utterly lack poetry, become something of an ordeal for the audience to sit through.

It’s a story of sibling love in a time of war, jimmied into other realities in a diversity of directions which make you think there was an angry committee at the helm of this writing project.

Indeed, in the opening scenes, Zolani Mahola presents a strong Lindiwe, who meets Grace (Lynelle Kenned) on the train and the two become friends. Lindiwe is a woman with a terrible tale to tell: she’s a runaway from an abusive husband. As the story unfolds and rolls in a whole range of concurrent directions, Lindiwe turns into a cameo, a casualty of the work.

This is not an isolated instance of thwarted opportunity. Samantha Peo plays Isabella, a tragic figure who is the sister of Rafael (Anthony Downing), Grace’s romantic interest. She sings in a night club, snorts her way through unhappiness and is subject to the whims of Russian druglords, Vladimir (Pierre van Heerden) and Ivan (Christiaan Snyman). Isabella’s tale headlines the second half of the production, and it’s a squalid tale told with great dollops of schmaltz, so earnest in their application that the potential subtlety of Peo’s character is battered by the prosaic nature of the work.

All things considered, with due respect to the professionals involved in creating this work and giving the project life, you cannot help but ask yourself: we live currently in such a violent society; do we really need to spend money to see more war and strobe lights on our stages, in the garb of tricksy techology? Do we really need to be exposed to gun-toting performers casting a fantasy war around us, as we sit in a theatre?

Calling Me Home features innovative set design with animation that will hold your interest – conveying a sense of space and atmosphere which is clear and compelling. But some basic premises in the work hurt what might have been good intentions, and as you peer through these sets at the world the production hopes to magic into life, you come away with some very damaging stereotypes about cultures – Africans are defined by war, poverty and cultural naivete, while Americans are tainted by the overweening presence of Russian crime bosses, construction workers and prostitutes. It’s enough to make you want to flee all the way home, without even being called to do so.

  • Calling Me Home is written and composed by Alice Gillham and directed by Magdalene Minnaar, assisted by Grant van Ster. It features creative input by Nadine Minnaar (set), Joshua Cutts (lighting), Louis Minnaar and Werner Burger (animation), Shaun Oelf (choreography), Alice Gillham and Stefan Lombard (musical direction), Mark Malherbe (sound), Matthew James (soundscape) and Juanita Kôtze and Sue Daniels (wardrobe). It is performed by Luigia Casaleggio, Anthony Downing, Richard Gau, Carly Graeme, Isabella Jane, Lynelle Kenned, Saxola Ketshengane, Vasti Knoesen, Clint Lesch, Tannah Levick, Thiart Li, Zolani Mahola, Kgomotso Makwela, Tankiso Mamabolo, Michael McMeeking, Manda Ndimande, Given Nkosi, Yollandi Nortjie, Samantha Peo, Laura-Lee Pitout, Musanete Sakupwanya, Dihan Schoeman, Conroy Scott, Len-Barry Simons, Christiaan Snyman, Annemarie Steenkamp, Shaun Thomas, Anja van den Berg, Sarah-Ann van der Merwe, Pierre van Heerden, Sebastian Zokoza and Zion Zuke, as well as a live orchestra featuring Cameron Andrews (clarinet), Olga Korvink (violin), Maureen Marler (‘cello), Anna-Maria Muller (flute) and Marga Sander (piano), in the Mandela Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, until September 3. Visit or call 0861 670 670.

Life can be such a delightful Drag!


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

Hold my hand and we’re half way there: West Side Story’s unequivocal victory


LOVE in the face of turf wars. Tony (Jonathan Roxmouth) and Maria (Lynnelle Kenned). Photograph by Jesse Kramer.

IT TAKES SPECIAL skill to tease open one of theatre and literature’s greatest works and to reinvent it. It  takes even more special skill and creative bravery to be able to produce a work on stage that has been produced on myriads of other stages all over the world and in various mediums, and to make it fresh. Producers Eric Abraham and Daniel Galloway, for the Fugard Theatre, are to be congratulated on the unequivocal victory they have achieved with West Side Story.

Premised on the unadulterated beauty of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, this tale of poverty and crime, love and hate in a post-Second World War, post Depression context on the West Side of New York, touches all the keystones that are triggers to the kind of clichés that give clichés their schmaltzy reputation, but with a set which is at once dazzling and subtle, some extraordinary stand-out performances and a deeply honed and polished reflection of violence and social context, to say nothing of sheer brilliance in design, it’s up there among the best theatre experiences in this city, of the decade.

It begins, however, with some unnecessary and uneasy gimmickry in the resonance between lighting and music and the spirit of the work doesn’t grab you by the throat from the work’s first bars of music, or first steps of dance, as you may anticipate.  The scene is cast with bland clarity, as the two gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, strut their stuff and tease their respective foes into internecine violence. The women in the bridal factory tend to be shrieky. But as the work unfolds, the incredible crescendo it achieves in balancing narrative with design, showcasing Jonathan Roxmouth opposite Lynnelle Kenned with their devastatingly fine voices in the leads, sweeps you away, heart first and not only do you forgive the opening blandness, but you forget it, too.

Making incredibly sophisticated use of the horizontal in the massive concrete-evocative set, an understanding of space and time but also depth of focus is compelling, and with this geometry, something completely extraordinary happens. The tale is a predictable one and you know how it ends, and the songs, from Maria and Tonight, to I Feel Pretty and Somewhere are so well known, they punctuate the piece with familiarity.

But what this director and his enormous cast have achieved here is an offering of a tale which will trigger your tears in spite of everything: the fierce love between Maria and Tony, which flies in the face of their respective gangs’ ideologies is handled with a sincerity and a flamboyance that is not just about the spectacle or the drama. It’s rich with life and fraught with texture. It’s not only about gritty New York values, and a self-conscious use of 1950s slang and dance sequences. It’s something that is lifted to the level of the timeless universal.

Kenned is relatively new on Johannesburg’s stages and slight of build, but supremely skilled vocally, she embraces the whole stage and the whole audience with her presence. Even whilst she is climbing scaffolding or in the scene but off central focus, your eyes rest on her. There’s a demureness and an innocence that evokes Olivia Hussey’s 1968 portrayal of Juliet in Franco Zefirelli’s version of the Shakespeare classic, and a brassiness which gives her soul. But when calamity strikes and death happens, that torsion between her and her lover and her brother is palpable. It’s a moment you won’t readily forget.

If you see one musical this year in Johannesburg: this is it.

  • West Side Story is based on an idea by Jerome Robbins and a book by Arthur Laurents and directed by Matthew Wild. It is designed by Leonard Bernstein (composition), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Jerome Robbins, Louisa Talbot and Richard Lothian (choreography), Charl-Johan Lingenfelder assisted by Marga Sandar (musical direction), Conor Murphy, Johan Engels, Carl Gersbach, Nadine Minnaar and Gerhard Morkel (set), Birrie Le Roux (costumes), Joshua Cutts (lighting) and Mark Malherbe (sound). It is performed by Grant Almirall, Matthew Berry, Cameron Botha, Daniel Buys, Caitlin Clerk, Elzanne Crause, Keaton Ditchfield, Adrian Galley, Nurit Graff, Reg Hart, Natasha Hess, Christopher Jaftha, Stephen Jubber, Lynelle Kenned, Bianca Le Grange, Richard Lothian, Carlo McFarlane, Ipeleng Merafe, Sven-Eric Müller, Kirsten Murphy Rossiter, Brendan Murray, Sibusiso Mxosana, LJ Neilson, Thami Njoko, Chloe Perling, Sabelo Radebe, JP Rossouw, Jonathan Roxmouth, Zolani Shangase, Gemma Trehearn, Craig Urbani, Sarah-Ann van der Merwe, Filipa van Eck, Tamryn van Houten, Tevin Weiner, Duane Williams and Kristin Wilson. The orchestra comprises Elsabe Laubscher (coordinator), Serge Cuca, Elbe Henkins, Ivo Ivanov, Daline Wilson, Dorota Swart, Song Ha Choi, Evert van Niekerk, Katrien Jooster, Ane van Staaden, Viara and Adrie Naude (violin); Carel Henn, Susan Mouton, Maureen Marler and Gerrit Koorsen (cello); Christi Swanepoel (double bass); Helen Vosloo, Anna Maria Muller and Handri Loots (flute); David Sendef and Donny Bouwer (trumpet); Siya Charles (trombone); Shanon Armer (horn); Brahm Henkins (bassoon); Gerben Grooten (percussion); and Chrisa Smit, Carl Ashford and James Green (reeds), conducted by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder assisted by Marga Sander. The band comprises Dawid Bowehoff, Matthew Foster, James Lombard, Justin Carter and Aldert du Toit. It is at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, Joburg theatre complex, Braamfontein, until March 5. Call 011 877 6800 or visit

Let’s hear it for the boys


CLOSE every door to me: Wonderfully refined Earl Gregory plays Joseph. Photograph courtesy

IF THE RAZZLE-DAZZLE of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph extravaganza is what gets your mojo pumping, look no further. This show is replete with utterly fabulous male performers, a song repertoire that’s mesmerising and upbeat and a hodge-podge of music references that may turn your head, if the booming deep bass and strobe lights don’t. It does, however, not do justice to the women onstage.

This Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is a boys’ show. Featuring imminently satisfying choreography and a beautiful cast of young men, in tune with the biblical saga of Jacob and his dozen sons, the work is non-stop all the way. And with Earl Gregory once again apprising the eponymous role, it flies. Gregory’s refined performance sets up a rich counterplay between the rambunctiousness of the rest of the brothers, lending you guttural insight into the basic lines of the story: He’s the favourite, he gets the coat, they’re jealous and get rid of him, but he manages to find his way to the top again.

And that is one of the downsides of this work: the narrative is chopped into its basics and loses nuance. And this happens because of technical challenges. For one thing, this show’s sound is very big. In fact, it’s bigger than the venue. The casualty, in such a situation is the clarity of the lyrics. If you come to see Joseph because you want a bit of a biblical tale with lovely tunes in your life, you might feel disappointed.  The Joseph story, arguably as sexy as the Jesus Christ saga in a musical interpretation on this scale, gets lost. Instead you will see something hard edged and blingy, with ramped up melodrama rather than sentimentality.

This is because there’s not only a huge mix of cultural references in the original version bringing everything from an Elvis-like Pharoah (Jonathan Roxmouth) to South American tango and French ballads into the mix, but also because director Paul Warwick Griffin mashes this up further with  South African references and lyrics which are rejigged in parts. The result is a party. A happy, flashy party, but still, a party, rather than a bible tale.

While the reference to the Guptas remains culturally dodgy – they are, after all, Indian and not Midianite – and many of the musical digressions get a little carried away with themselves, you need to roll with the flow of this otherwise tightly woven piece.

The greatest downfall, however, is the women. Dressed in seriously unflattering costumes, and crudely choreographed, they feel compromised. Rather than seductive, Potiphar’s wife (Thalia Burt) is pushed into grotesque intercourse-evocative manoeuvres with her male slaves, in a kind of Rocky Horror Show meets ancient Egyptian shlock scene, which leave little to the imagination. Also the “adoring girls” – what they’re named in the programme – are little more than fluff on the scene.

In the performance on which this review is premised, Raquel Munn played the narrator; she tried  hard to embrace this production with a big smile and a projected persona, but simply doesn’t have the sense of authority onstage to be convincing.

And yes, while strobes and booming basses are the order of the day, it isn’t direct sensory assault for the full duration of the show and elements like Joseph’s time incarcerated are handled with a quiet starkness that challenges the noisiness of the rest of the piece and stands out rather exquisitely.

In all, it’s a happy lovely party of a story with overriding themes of brotherly jealousy, the horror of the loss of a son, lots of gyrating hips and flashy costumes, and an ultimate celebration of the victim as hero. If you can overlook its flaws, don’t mind the surprise strobes and want to see some fine young men jiggling their stuff with pizzazz and confidence, this one’s for you.

  • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, with original lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber is directed by Paul Warwick Griffin. It is designed by Duane Alexander (choreographer), Niall Griffin (costumes), Gareth Hewitt Williams (lighting), Mark Malherbe (sound) and Louis Zurnamer (musical direction), and performed by Thalia Burt, Emile Doubell, Louise Duhain, Richard Gau, Calvyn Grandling, Darren Greeff, Earl Gregory, Èmil Haarhoff, Kyle Jardine, Kent Jeycocke, Venolia Manale, Michael McMeeking, Kenneth Meyer, Raquel Munn, Nádine, Jarryd Nurden, Dean Roberts, Jonathan Roxmouth, Sonwabiso Sakuba, Stephan van der Walt and Evan van Soest, with music by Louis Zurnamer (piano), James Lombard (Drums), Ryno Zeelie (additional guitar) and Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (other instruments), at The Pieter Toerien Theatre in Montecasino, Fourways until January 29 and at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town, February 16 to April 8. Visit

Ultimate schmaltz meets impeccable polish


COME, boy: The love for the urchin (Emma-Rose Blacher) and the stray. Photograph by Christiaan Kotze

Children with their dogs in a tale about orphans during the years of the 1930s Depression – one that ends with a resounding happily-ever-after: It’s a flawless recipe for absolute schmaltz overload, for most directors, performers and producers. This version of Annie, however, replete with a significant child cast – in fact, with three alternative child casts – is so well honed, so infinitesimally plotted and so carefully crafted that it really flies: from the set to the cast to the choreography to the behaviour of the dog, it’s a tight ship of a show and gives dignity to the notion of ultimate schmaltz.

When the eponymous little girl (Emma-Rose Blacher) with her characteristic red hair and her impeccably wretched orphan-Annie brown cardigan emerges on stage after the dormitory scene, she will melt your heart and blow your mind at the same time. Exuding a confidence way beyond her 12 years, Blacher presents the real deal in musical theatre’s hope for the future: she can sing, she can act, she can dance and her interface with her peers and adult performers is completely flawless. She lends the complicated character of Annie who has dreams and hopes in a harsh reality, endearing credibility. And this from an overwhelmingly enormous stage, in front of a packed audience.

Indeed, with all eyes and all spotlights on her, it is difficult to drag your eyes into other aspects of the work: It is beautifully directed in such a way that the child central to the tale never fades under the embrace of the story, which reaches from America’s New Deal to an interface with Roosevelt (Mike Huff), a navigation into the poverty of just-post-Depression America where morals and lives were fraying at the seams. Annie remains in the spotlight through incredibly beautiful and authentic costume changes and set shifts which will set your heart aflutter.

With Neels Claasen in the role of Daddy Warbucks (on opening night), and Charon Williams-Ros as the deliciously nasty and utterly morally flawed persona of Miss Hannigan, the work is satisfyingly tight, perfectly clear and as articulate as a comic book in the values it espouses. It’s one of those family shows that will leave you with hope in your heart and encourage you to remember why you need to have dreams for the future, even if everything feels broken and on the cusp of self-destruction

The casualty in your experience of this work, however, may be manifest in two areas: the audience around you and the hard-boiledness of the production. But, you may protest, the more hard-boiled the better? In an age where digital technology is able to remove every speck of dust, uncertainty or scratch in a musical performance, you yearn for the soft-edged nuances you get from listening to vinyl.

Effectively, Annie, which is crafted as a franchise production to tour the world and features the enormous creative input of performers, has a kind of colour-by-number status. But don’t get me wrong: this is not an easy thing to emulate, from its plotting to its choreography, the training of local performers to the ultimate success of the work – consider pieces such as Dreamgirls, Chicago, Hairspray and others of that ilk that have graced South African stages in the last few years. Rather, the effects of this beautiful show are designed so that they may be exactly replicated, whether the work is being staged in Johannesburg or Honolulu. And this is where the hard-boiledness comes in: the work is so tight, so hard-edged in its values that it may feel ever so slightly too slick for comfort.

But your comfort zones might be upset for another reason too: It’s an odd reality that when the average theatre goer hears that a work is about children, or features children, they round up their tousle-headed sproglets, wipe their noses, change their nappies and whip them off to a fully fledged three hour long theatre production with loud booming noises, a complex political story, flashing lights and expensive tickets. And what happens? The sproglet in question howls its head off and is severely traumatised by the event. To say nothing of what it does for the audience with the misfortune to be seated within earshot of them. The theatre simply cannot be held responsible when an audience member flagrantly ignores the “no under 3” proscription on the booking pack: no one wants a fight with an unhappy patron minutes before the curtain rises. Or should they? Either way, this ain’t a show for the littlies, but it’s as good as it gets in terms of a life-shaking experience for the bigger children in the audience as it graciously skates through 1930s aesthetics, values and ethos.

  • Annie, based on the eponymous book by Thomas Meeham is directed by Nikolai Foster and Nick Winston. It features design by Charles Strouse (music), Martin Charnin (lyrics), Nick Winston (choreography), George Dyer (orchestration), Colin Richmond (set and costumes), Mark Malherbe (sound), Ben Cracknell (lighting) and Bryan Schimmel (musical direction). It is performed by Duane Alexander, Neels Claasen, Stefania du Toit, Michael Fullard, Ambre-Chanel Fulton, Delray Halgryn, Mike Huff, Stephen Jubber, Cat Lane, Michelle Lane, Anton Luitingh, Hope Maimane, Ben Mundy, Jenna Robinson Child, Taryn Sudding, Candice van Litsenborgh, Jonathan Raath, Richard Vorster and Charon Williams-Ros, with three child casts: Team Empire, comprising Emma-Rose Blacher, Kezia du Plessis, Talicia Marirti, Bonisiwe Nomoyi, Gemma Scarcella, Kyra Teague and Luca Teague; Team Madison, comprising Annika de Beer, Caitlin Dicker, Hannah Hayword, Mikayla Levick, Kundai Nyama, Omolola Peguillan and Anastasia Schroder; and Team Rockerfeller comprising Ariane Angelopoulo, Lilla Fleischmann, Kelli Hollander, Teagan McGinley, Mikah Smith, Lisa Solomon and Rachelle Weiss. [This review is premised on the performance of team Empire]. The live orchestra, under the baton of Bryan Schimmel and Kevin Kraak comprises Serge Cuca/Kevin Cook (violin), Carl James Ashford (flute, clarinet, alto sax, tenor sax), Donny Bouwer/Braam van Tonder/Michael Magner (trumpet, flugelhorn), Zbigniew Kobak/Nick Green (trombone, euphonium), Cobi van Wyk (percussion). It performs at Teatro, Montecasino in Fourways until November 27 and at Artscape Opera House in Cape Town December 2-January 8, 2017. Booking at Computicket.

They’re playing your song at Monte


Think of Dreamgirls or Jersey Boys on a shoestring budget and you will get an idea of the loveliness of I’m playing your song. It’s a new work, co-written by its director and performer, embracing the period in which arguably some of the greatest popular music in the world was made. It has a cast of two – three, including the piano – but a reach as rich and tight and melodic as the big budget shows. It embraces the life and music of Marvin Hamlisch – he of songs such as The Way We Were, The Spy Who Loved Me and the theme song from The Sting, to name but a few. But in touching all these points, the work is big-hearted and soundly made: it’s backed by a strong team who clearly are deeply in love with the material itself, and what you get, in the audience, is a big musical in a small framework. And it’s a gem of a success.

Indeed, Alan Swerdlow, director and co-writer of the work has done it again. I’m playing your song is beautifully constructed around America’s glitterati in film and music of the time; it doesn’t pretend to be chronological and it doesn’t shy from the overtly Jewish elements in Hamlisch’s life. Rather it is punctuated with chunks and anecdotes, engaging everything from the overbearing presence of Hamlisch’s European refugee mother, to the unapologetic romance describing his relationship with Terre Blair, who he married in 1989.

But in terms of the songs being yours and mine, so is the story: these classics of western popular music are so universal in their meaning and catchiness that the story is not only that of Hamlisch, but it’s yours and mine too. The theme about falling in love. The one about following your dreams. About finding the ‘elbows’ to make yourself a place in the world. And yet, even though it is loaded with all these schmaltzy clichés, it vies from silly maudlin. Granted, the humour is very American and not often sophisticated, and there’s a weird anachronism with a cell phone in the early 1980s, but forgiving those elements, this is a magnificent piece of work, which pays breathtaking and fun homage to the great Barbra Streisand.

It is supported with an ingenious set which is at once a screen for projections and a domestic space, the home for the piano, and the place where Hamlisch’s mother makes tuna sandwiches, with celery.  There are some quirks and light bulb moments in the set which will make you shrill with delight, but overall, there’s a sense of smooth comfort with these performers, in the context of the set, with one another, that’s so delightful that it spills over into the audience from the work’s opening bars until its finale.

You may just have been wowed by Jonathan Roxmouth in the eponymous role in Sweeney Todd at this theatre; you won’t be disappointed with him as Marvin Hamlisch. This multi-talented performer exercises other muscles here, which succeed admirably in giving the musical giant flesh and blood and wonderful humanity.

But in many respects and at several unequivocal highlights, Sharon Spiegel-Wagner steals the show. Playing every female lead, in clever costumes and wigs, she truly comes into her own in this work. Audiences have watched her mature onstage over the last decade or so. But here, she takes on her characters and performs her music with a sense of authority and sheer passion that holds the whole audience in the palm of her hands.

I’m playing your song is one of those shows that touches many buttons in the heart and sensibility of an audience who was alive in the 1970s and 1980s. Although it doesn’t feature the kind of show-stopper musical moments as you might remember from Jersey Boys, its piano work is masterful and witty and its interchange of time frames, characters and mood, is crisp and engaging. In short, see it.

  • I’m playing your song: The Marvin Hamlisch Story is written by Jonathan Roxmouth and Alan Swerdlow, based on idea by Pieter Toerien. It is directed by Alan Swerdlow, features music by Marvin Hamlisch, and lyrics by Bryan Adams, Carol Bayer Sager, Alan and Marilyn Berman, Craig Carnelia, Ed Kleban, RJ Lange, Howard Liebling and Barbra Streisand. It is designed by Denis Hutchinson (lighting and set), Mark Malherbe (sound), Bryan Schimmel (musical supervision) and Colin Muir (wigs). It is performed by Jonathan Roxmouth and Sharon Spiegel-Wager, at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, Fourways, until January 10. Visit or call 011 511-1988