BWW Reviews: UNDERSTUDY BLUES Melt Away as Candice van Litsenborgh Takes the Stage
For the past decade or so, Candice van Litsenborgh has been a staple on the musical theatre stage in South Africa, appearing in shows like JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, CHESS, EVITA, SUNSET BOULEVARD, ASSASSINS, SHOW BOAT and I LOVE YOU, YOU'RE PERFECT... NOW CHANGE. She is a performer that adds value to any show in which she appears, far too often relegated to the ensemble or - as per the central conceit of UNDERSTUDY BLUES - as the understudy. In this cabaret, Van Litsenborgh places centre stage those actors whose work directors love 'so doggone much that (they're) their second choice', singing a selection of 18 songs along the way. These range from the Brian Cimmet - Amanda Yesnowitz penned tune that gives the show its title through standards like "There's No Business Like Show Business" to more obscure contemporary musical theatre pieces like Adam Gwon's "I'll Be Here".
UNDERSTUDY BLUES dramatises a night in the life of an understudy, taking a look at what she does behind the scenes as she waits for the call that never seems to come, the one that tells her she will go on. Linking the songs with a number of sketches, Van Litsenborgh nails whatever material she tackles in the show. Even more impressive, she puts her own stamp on classics like "The Man That Got Away" and "Everything's Coming Up Roses" rather than simply channelling Judy Garland or Ethel Merman or any other performer who has tackled any of the songs that she sings in the show. She owns the material that she has chosen from her first entrance until the final curtain. With fantastic accompaniment by musical director Drew Rienstra and direction by Richard Wright-Firth that really grounds her in the character she is playing, the piece really showcases Van Litsenborgh's diversity and her range as an actress. Other key moments in the show include a flawless performance of William Finn's "I'd Rather Be Sailing" (from A NEW BRAIN) and a fun take on Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison's "Show Off" (from THE DROWSY CHAPERONE).
The show itself has two main strengths. Firstly, the choice to frame the show with the experiences of a specific persona rather than from the point of view of the actress herself means that UNDERSTUDY BLUES does not comes off as a show about ego, self-pity, or about dishing behind the scenes gossip. The second is that the show is not only about being the underdog of the musical theatre world, but also one about being the runner-up in relationships. Van Litsenborgh's understudy is a lovelorn little thing, whose experiences with matters of the heart give non-theatrical folk a way into the story too.
Playing two sides of the story in that way makes UNDERSTUDY BLUES a better show, and sets it up to be a superior cabaret piece. If there is any nit-picking to be done, it is only that the emotional arc depicting the understudy's heartbreak and healing could be refined a little more. There is a point in the show when the songs are coming at the audience so thick and fast that one wishes for a moment to breathe, to take in Van Litsenborgh's immense talents as a performer and what she is accomplishing as a storyteller on stage. In that regard, it probably would not hurt UNDERSTUDY BLUES to lose a song or two and to add another sketch. But since every song is so expertly delivered, perhaps the thing to do is simply to work out the show's right rhythm in its mid-section and keep things moving forward rather than around in circles.
UNDERSTUDY BLUES is a great little show, the kind we should be seeing our South African musical theatre performers use to fill their time in between contracts of the old faithfuls we see revived time and time again on our local stages. Although we get to see Van Litsenborgh on our stages regularly, without UNDERSTUDY BLUES we might never be able to imagine her as Rose in GYPSY, Mame in MAME, Mabel in MACK AND MABEL, Carmen in CURTAINS, Queenie in THE WILD PARTY, Diana in NEXT TO NORMAL or Elizabeth in IF/THEN. There is a lifetime of roles just waiting for Van Litsenborgh to take them in her hands and hopefully an imaginative producer will take a chance on her and a show without the track record of THE SOUND OF MUSIC or ANNIE and then - well, you never know: lightening could strike.
UNDERSTUDY BLUES runs at The Galloway Theatre at the Waterfront Theatre School in Port Road until 31 May 2014. Online bookings can be made through the Waterfront Theatre School website (www.waterfronttheatreschool.co.za) or by calling Sharon on 0827728867. Tickets cost R100.