BWW Review: Drabinsky's SOUSATZKA - Lackluster Material, Brilliantly Performed
The much anticipated opening of Sousatzka, the musical billed as the comeback of Garth Drabinsky, took place last night at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. Sousatzka tells the story of Holocaust survivor Madame Sousatzka (Victoria Clark), her prodigy piano pupil Themba (Jordan Barrow) - and how the two change each other's lives for the better.
Despite oversight from a producer whose artistic genius is still whispered about in theatre lobbies across the city, Sousatzka is, like the spun narrative of its producer, overproduced.
There's a great show in all that material, somewhere - but this one isn't it. Though the principal cast are all superstars in the theatre world and give truly impressive performances, one can't help but feel that you can't appreciate their full talents despite best efforts to make the most of the material.
Victoria Clark has a few stunning moments where she delivers on sweeping ballads that likely in the hands of anyone else would bore. If anyone can make you tear up with lackluster material, it's Clark. She's fully committed to the part and somewhere in the second act her Sousatzka becomes less of a caricature and more of a fully realized human being. Jordan Barrow's Themba is thrust on the stage like a prop, and though Barrow is an exceptional talent one can't help but feel sorry for him as he sings an act two solo better left unsung.
Montego Glover gives one of the most fully realized performances as Themba's mother. The tragically underused Judy Kaye commands attention, but when she finally gets to her second act solo it brings the action to a halt and seems almost like an afterthought. (In fact, the number was added while the show was in previews - replacing a now cut song.)
In itself, Sousatzka is hardly a musical. Yes the show features many songs but none of them are written to move the action forward - though many will feature mimed piano playing. After nearly every book scene one of the principal cast members will plant themselves somewhere on the projection filled stage and express themselves in song for a few minutes at a time. At the end of the song we'll have learned nothing new and the show will continue, and you might find yourself wondering where your three minutes have gone.
A production number in the first act is so awkwardly forced that not even choreographer Graciela Daniele could save it.
A particularly cringe worthy moment at the end of the first act includes the projections of Jewish faces from the Holocaust filling the auditorium as Victoria Clark and Judy Kaye huddle in front of a projection screen. It comes out of nowhere and seems like a moment designed to trigger a forced somber response from audiences that falls flat.
Richard Matlby and David Shire have written a few great ballads but much of the score is lackluster at best. Anthony Ward's scenic design is an interesting mix of black backdrops, projections, and practical scenery that never quite fully blends. Director Adrian Noble has made the best of the material he's got to work with.
Somewhere in the mess, there's bound to be a good show. Despite the hype Sousatzka is neither a tear jerker nor a feel good show. The creatives and producers need to decide which story they're trying to tell: a story of serious political conflicts or the romanticized coming of age story of the prodigy piano player and his eccentric teacher.
Lackluster material, brilliantly performed by all - and probably worth seeing for curiosity's sake as in its current form, unlikely to take Broadway by storm.