BWW CD Reviews: South African BLOOD BROTHERS a Fascinating Listening Experience for Musical Theatre Fans
There are more than a dozen cast recordings of Willy Russell's BLOOD BROTHERS. Besides a handful of recordings from English-language productions of the show, there are also cast albums available from countries as diverse as Holland, Korea, Spain, Japan and the Czech Republic. Joining these is a cast recording of the South African adaptation of BLOOD BROTHERS, which is not only in the vernacular of its District Six and Cape Flats setting but also represents the first full scale adaptation of the show to a new setting (by David Kramer of DISTRICT SIX: THE MUSICAL and KAT AND THE KINGS fame) rather than a translation of the work into, say, Dutch, Spanish or Japanese.
BLOOD BROTHERS is the story of two brothers, Mickey and Edward, separated at birth by their working class mother, Mrs Johnstone. Unable to make ends meet, she gives her baby to her employer, Mrs Lyons, to be raised in a middle class environment. It is only a matter of time before the two brothers' paths cross. Eventually, once they are grown and discover the connection between the two of them, both are killed, as per the superstition that twins who are secretly parted will both die if either learns that he was one of a pair.
Kramer's adaptation itself is not without its problems. Although there are some narrative similarities between the slum clearances in Liverpool, which is one of the key plot points in BLOOD BROTHERS, and the forced removals of people from District Six to the Cape Flats during the apartheid era, it is more difficult to shift the socio-political commentary from the original version of the show to this one. In the original, Russell poses the question of what causes the death of the two brothers: superstition or class. Using Bretchian techniques, BLOOD BROTHERS proceeds to explore the problems of the class system by juxtaposing the experiences of the two separated brothers. Access to education and the justice system as well as commentary on how economic difficulties affect the two classes differently all come under the spotlight.
Some of these observations are lost in the localisation of the piece. Things are watered down even further due to the whitewashing of the context of this era in South Africa history: by the time Mrs Johnstone sings "A Bright New Day" upon receiving a letter ordering her family to move from District Six to the Cape Flats, the play is in ideologically shaky territory. The government may certainly have tried to sell the move as "A Bright New Day", but even the shortest stroll through the District Six Museum will reveal the discrepancy between government propaganda and the actual, personal experience of living through the forced removals. Some cursory observations about life on the Cape Flats made in the opening of the second act simply do not get to grips with the huge social injustice that this process represented, while most subsequent narrative events are mostly superficially linked to the socio-political and economic contexts that defined that period of South African history. Only one song, "Take a Letter, Miss Jones", satisfactorily grounds the piece in some sense of that reality.
All of this is much more evident in the full production itself, which is still running at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, following stops at Theatre on the Bay and Pieter Toerien's Montecasino Theatre, than it is in the recording, which serves as a document of the changes in the text. The first indication of these is in the "Overture", which introduces the musical palate of this version of the show. The track really springs to life about halfway through when a guitar pops in, played in a way that really captures the milieu. It is magical. What is left out on the recording are the first words of the show, Mrs Johnstone's delivery of the first lines of "Tell Me It's Not True" and the Narrator's introduction, which would really have given this cast album the contextual framework that any recording of BLOOD BROTHERS needs to be a completely fulfilling listening experience.
The milieu of the show is cemented in the first song "Marilyn Monroe", where Mrs Johnstone introduces her husband as 'a regte Romeo'. There is a great deal of localisation in this song, which sets everything up well and sometimes fixes up some of the half rhymes with which Russell has burdened the score. Major changes are also seen in the songs "My Child" (some translations and local flavour are included), "Shoes Upon the Table" (where it is now the tokoloshe rather than the devil who's 'got your number'), "Kids Game" (in which Al Capone is jettisoned in favour of James Bond and Dr Strangelove replaces Professor Howe), "Bergies on the Mountain" (ostensibly presented as an equivalent of the urban legend of child-snatching gypsies in the UK) and "My Friend" (the addition of localised character-specific concepts). Perhaps the biggest overhaul is seen in "I'm Not Saying a Word", which is now a duet for Edward and Linda rather than his solo, and it makes for a fantastic second-act moment.
As mentioned above, the original BLOOD BROTHERS is characterised by many half rhymes and Russell also plays fairly freely with the scansion of his lyrics. Kramer approaches the rhyme schemes with more discipline, but retains much of the metrical leniency of the original. Sometimes this makes for lyrics that are a little cluttered, the avoidance of which is one of the challenges of translating lyrics when the languages involved are set up rather differently when it comes to vocabulary and sentence structure.
Besides serving as a record of the adaptation, BLOOD BROTHERS also preserves the performances that brought the production to life, including Bianca le Grange's marvellous Mrs Johnstone. Although the final mix of the recording does not quote reveal just how brilliantly her vocal performance developed from the start of the show, where Le Grange delivers the wistful "Marilyn Monroe", to its finish, where she leads a heart-rending interpretation of "Tell Me It's Not True", it does indicate how the South African version of the show has been built around her. She is the strongest singer in the company and comes across most successfully here. Her performance of one of the best songs in the show, "Easy Terms", is also moving.
Elton Landrew, who plays the Narrator, also scores prominently on the album, delivering a menacing vocal on "Shoes upon the Table". On disc, he is effective in a way that he simply was not in the theatre, coming across as a far more dynamic personality than he did in person. The other actors - which include Buhle Ngaba as Mrs Lyons, Ephraim Gordon as Mickey, Dean Balie as Edward and Andréa Franklin as Linda - deliver performances that are generally convincing acting-wise, with varying degrees of accomplishment with their singing. Musical theatre requires, of course, a combination of the two, but the balance has to be right and the songs here require vocals that are a little more robust.
The small seven-piece band delivers solid ensemble playing, with particular highlights being Kerryn Torrance's violin solos during "Easy Terms" as well as the guitar work by Jason de Laney. Other musicians include Don-veno Prins on soprano and tenor saxophone, Grandall Vlotman on keyboards, Charlton Daniels on bass and Keagan Links on drums. It is a pity that the sizes of orchestras for musicals tend to be limited by financial constraints, a worldwide trend for which a solution will have to be found at some point.
The cast album of BLOOD BROTHERS will offer an interesting listening experience to fans of the show and musical theatre enthusiasts in general. Above all, it is wonderful to have a South African cast recording available for purchase. The David Kramer-Taliep Pietersen shows and a live recording of THE LION KING aside, South African cast recordings are far too rare these days. Whatever one thinks of the show or of the album itself, the fact that it exists at all is something to be commended and valued. Let us hope to see more in the future.
Copies of the BLOOD BROTHERS cast recording, released by Blik Music, can be purchased from the theatre when seeing the show, which is currently booking through 31 May. Tickets are available at Computicket.
Photo credit: Jesse Kramer