Knocked out by King Kong

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.
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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.