BWW Reviews: Moving QUEEN AT THE BALLET Revival Needs Something More
Bovim Ballet is back on stage in Cape Town with a return reason of QUEEN AT THE BALLET. One of the project-based company’s flagship productions, this "rock ballet" was first seen in 2004 at which time it crafted a new image for ballet in South Africa, one that was sexy, contemporary, cutting edge and exciting. A tribute to Freddie Mercury, the show delves into the life of the enigmatic frontman of Queen, using many of the timeless songs that Mercury introduced during his career at a springboard.
At its core, QUEEN AT THE BALLET is about the intricacy of relationships, about how they begin, end and transform. Perhaps that is why the more intimate numbers work best. When Henk Opperman, simply brilliant as Freddie, takes the stage with his various lovers the show throbs with a heartbeat that pulsates all the way through to the back wall of the theatre. Most convincing of all are the sequences during which he is partnered by Devon Marshbank, who delivers a performance as Jim Hutton that is layered and poignant. The chemistry between the two is palpable and this lends the piece an emotional core that is utterly compelling.
A series of numbers that portrayed Freddie’s relationships with women fleshes out this theme, dealing as it must with the universal human need to connect. Tanya Futter is grace personified as Mary Austin, a woman who was a central figure in Mercury’s life and for whom he wrote "Love of My Life". Faye Dubinski bursts with personality in as Barbara Valentin, around whom the "Killer Queen" number in the show is built. As Rosemary Pearson, herself the most mysterious of Mercury’s lovers, Nicola van der Merwe combines elegance with a raw vulnerability that was best on display during "Take My Breath Away", a quartet danced with Opperman, Marshbank and James Bradley.
The other important thematic motif in QUEEN AT THE BALLET is time, which manifests itself in the choreography, in a large clockface appears onstage from time to time and in the two characters that round out the principal cast, MasterTime (Steven van Wyk ) and Second Hand (JV Mattei). MasterTime functions as a kind of narrator-commentator and Van Wyk embodies the character with a sense of wit and flamboyance. As his hip-hop dancing assistant, Mattei uses his appealing personality to makes palatable a role overtly created to add youth appeal to the show while adding little resonance to it.
The show features recorded music with live singers, namely Cito (the electric lead singer of WONDERboom, who delivered similarly first class vocals in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and CHESS), Daniel Fisher (whose vocals are techinically solid but whose presence lacks the magnetism for which Mercury was so famous onstage), Magdalene Minnaar (who appears onstage to deliver the soprano vocal in "Barcelona" and who delivers in spades) and the abovementioned Van Wyk, who delivers a couple of the songs in the show in character.
One of the biggest challenges in dance show with live singers is how to integrate the singers into the staging. For much of Act 1, Cito and Fisher are stuck upstage on two simple rostra. Things are better in Act 2, when there is more movement of the singers amidst the dancers. What remains missing throughout is a dramatic reason for these singers to be there. Who are they in this highly codified tale of life and love? What is their relationship to Freddie? Bodies on stage in ballet have to make meaning, particularly ones that compete with the dancers for focus.
Visually, the show is most successful in its costume design, with contributions from Klûk CGDT, Gavin Rajah, Ian West and Craig Port providing outfits that not only make the company look fantastic, but which also lend a real sense of character to each of the numbers. Less effective is the set design, which is rather one-dimensional. While I appreciate that the design prioritises the dancers over spectacle, minimalist designs are notoriously tricky to negotiate and this is a piece that requires a set that offers more options in the space for levels and for entrance and exit points on the stage.
It is clear that what is on stage in this ballet is a labour of love and I really wanted to love QUEEN AT THE BALLET - but I cannot say that my response to the production was without reservation. More than four score performances later, it is perhaps easy to forget what a landmark the first production of the show was, an evolutionary step for ballet artistically and commercially in this country. The problem is that it is not still 2004. Sean Bovim’s instincts around updating the show, which has been developed since its initial outing, are justified, but what he has done in that regard feels cosmetic.