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
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.