2013 South African Theatre Retrospectives: Musical Theatre, Opera and Cabaret

The penultimate column in BroadwayWorld's South African Theatre Retrospective series takes a look at some of the musical theatre, opera and cabaret performances that have been produced on stage in 2013. This is the fourth retrospective column, with three earlier columns having been focused on new South African plays, revivals of classic South African plays and South African productions of international plays, and stand-up comedy, variety shows and storytelling. One more column, celebrating dance and physical theatre, will appear.

Big musicals seen on stages around the country this year included JERSEY BOYS, THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW, BLOOD BROTHERS, WEST SIDE STORY, STARLIGHT EXPRESS and SUNSET BOULEVARD.

JERSEY BOYS, which played the Teatro at Montecasino in Johannesburg before transferring to the Artscape Opera House in Cape Town, was a smash success with audiences and critics alike. The show tells the backstory of the rock 'n roll group, The Four Seasons, using their music to document their rise to fame and the subsequent trials and triumphs experienced by the group as they churned out hits like "Sherry" and "December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)". With music by Bob Gaudio, lyrics by Bob Crewe and a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, the show won four Tony Awards when it opened on Broadway. The cast album of the show subsequently won a Grammy Award.

Actress Candice van Litsenborgh, who is currently performing in both SUNSET BOULEVARD and Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer's new musical adaptation of HANSEL AND GRETEL, raved about the show: 'JERSEY BOYS was incredible. Slick, in absolutely every respect. You couldn't help but get caught up in the story of the creation of all that amazing music. It's not often that I watch a show more than once, it really has to be something very special, and JERSEY BOYS earned a return visit to the theatre.'

Executive Director of KickstArt Theatre, Steven Stead, agreed with her, mentioning the jukebox musical's 'great story-telling, stunning design and direction, and excellent performances across the board' as some of the elements that came together to make for a fantastic production of the show. The cast of JERSEY BOYS was headed up by Grant Almirall, Daniel Buys, Emmanuel Castis, Kenneth Meyer and Jaco van Rensburg.

This production of JERSEY BOYS was also a testament to the enduring quality of the music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, which speaks not only to fans of that pop star and the dynamic boy group he helped propel to fame but also to members of younger generations who were introduced to songs like "Walk Like a Man", "Beggin'" and "Big Girls Don't Cry". Lauren de Bruyn, who was the head of the Culture Club at her high school, Springfield Convent Senior School, explained why JERSEY BOYS was one of the best things she saw this year: 'The show had tons of energy and it was very entertaining. It was the type of show that I would have loved to have seen again if I was given the chance.'

Steven Stead also named THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW as one of the musicals he enjoyed this year, praising it for being 'good on every level, finely detailed and performed with relish and skill.' THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW is Richard O'Brien's musical tribute to the B movies of the mid-twentieth century, a deliciously camp tale of a wholesome American couple, Brad (Paul du Toit) and Janet (Jenny Stead), whose naiveté and middle class morality comes crashing down around them when they stumble upon a group of sexy Transylvanians, commanded by Dr Frank N. Furter (Brendan van Rhyn). The show opened at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town in the middle of the year, with a Johannesburg run planned for 2014. Arts publicist, Christine Skinner, applauded the show for presenting 'two unbeatable hours of polished, superlative fun with a popular favourite.' One of the main features of the design of THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW was a series of animated video graphics, which were created and brought to life by James Cooke and Anwar McWhite.

THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW was produced by The Fugard Theatre, a follow up to their successful production of KAT AND THE KINGS last year. Their next musical, a South African adaptation by David Kramer of Willy Russell's BLOOD BROTHERS, was a co-production with Pieter Toerien and opened at Toerien's Theatre on the Bay venue in CapeTown before transferring to Johannesburg. The show, which stars Idols celebrity and pop singer Bianca le Grange as Mrs Johnstone, the poverty stricken mother who gives one of her new-born twins to her wealthier employer, will return to Cape Town for a further season in 2014.

Kwazulu-Natal also hummed with the sound of musicals when a production of WEST SIDE STORY was produced at The Playhouse in Durban. This classic piece of musical theatre, by Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim, deals with the theme of racial prejudice, resetting the narrative of ROMEO AND JULIET against the backdrop of gang warfare in New York City. Leading the young cast as Tony and Maria were Clint Lesch and Ernestine Stuurman, with Jarryd Nurden as Riff, Reg Hart as Bernardo and Nurit Graaf as Anita. The direction and choreography were handled by Ralph Lawson and Christopher Kindo.

The first of two Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals seen in South Africa this year was STARLIGHT EXPRESS. Janice Honeyman directed a new production of the musical, which has employed no less than four lyricists (Richard Stilgoe, Don Black, David Yazbek and Nick Coler) in its lifetime. Telling the story of steam train, Rusty, and his attempts to beat Greaseball (a diesel train), Elecrra (an electric train) and a host of other competitors for a racing title that will secure his honour and the heart of Pearl, one of the host of female coaches that couple themselves to the engines, the show struggled to find an audience despite a heavy marketing drive from the Joburg Theatre.

SUNSET BOULEVARD, Pieter Toerien's "bonsai" musical for 2013, was Cape Town based composer Roland Perold's pick of the year. The musical, which features a score by Lloyd Webber, with the book and lyrics being provided by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, is based on Billy Wilder's classic film about a Hollywood screenwriter whose path crosses with an aging silent movie star who clings desperately to the memories of her glamorous past. Perold said, "Perhaps it's one of Lloyd Webber's less popular musicals, but it's one with beautiful stolen moments appearing throughout the show. I found the delicately understated scenes between Bethany Dickson and Jonathan Roxmouth to be especially touching.' Dickson and Roxmouth played the roles of Betty Schaefer and Joe Gillis respectively, with Angela Kilian leading the cast as Norma Desmond. The show featured sumptuous design, with sets and lighting handled by Denis Hutchinson and costumes designed by Penny Simpson.

Perold is also the founder of ROLSKA Productions, under the banner of which he presented an original musical at the National Arts Festival, THE LAST NOTE, which dealt with the trials and tribulations of a concert pianist who finds himself stranded in Mexico following a nervous breakdown on stage in Cape Town.

Another original piece of musical theatre that debuted at the National Arts Festival was Jervis Pennington's A TOWN CALLED FOKOL LUTHO, which subsequently played a season at the Kalk Bay Theatre in Cape Town. This show, which featured an a cappella score is described by Simon Cooper, the owner of Kalk Bay Theatre and a producer at KBT Productions as being 'a very funny look at small town South Africa' and was also one of Christine Skinner's favourites for the year: 'It was funny, quirky, touching and cheeky, with beautiful harmonies performed by a seriously talented cast.'

Opera stages in South Africa were filled by beloved perennials, such as DON GIOVANNI, MADAMA BUTTERFLY and THE BARBER OF SEVILLE, as well as a couple of original pieces presented under the banner of Cape Town Opera as a double bill, TWO: 30. One of these two operas - BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE: A DICTIONARY OF A MINING ACCIDENT - was by South African composer, Phillip Miller.

However, it was another opera classic that was the pick of the bunch of Robin Malan, the owner and manager of Junket, a publishing company that specialises in new South African plays: Guiseppe Verdi's OTELLO. OTELLO, which Malan described as 'spectacular and exciting' was a collaboration between Cape Town Opera, West Australian Opera, Opera Queensland, New Zealand Opera, State Opera of South Australia and Victorian Opera and was performed at the Artscape Opera House.

Malan continues: 'Forget Venice and Cyrus - from the first second, we were in the bowels of an aircraft-carrier, with everyone in camo or shining white naval uniforms. All the eavesdropping scenes were done peering at monitors and listening on earphones to CCTV-captured liaisons. Beforehand, I was deeply sceptical of an Othello who was not black - how could that be? What about the lone black man in the whole of Venice? What about the "black ram tupping your white ewe"? But, once on board with the ship's complement consisting of the entire Cape Town Opera, almost everyone was black! So it hardly mattered. In fact, it was quite fun to note, in the last scene, when the Venetian officials come to arrest Othello, he was the only white among the all-black top brass! The Georgian-Russian Othello wasn't much of an actor, but George Stevens (a "coloured" man from Cape Town) was great as Iago. I have to say: I loved it all.'

In comparison with its prominence on South African stages last year, cabaret work seemed to have less of an impact in 2013. Godfrey Johnson and Emile Minnie continued to tour with MINNIE AND JOHNSON, which Christine Skinner singled for its 'explosive fun and musical brilliance,' with a special nod to the pair's Gaga-Madonna-Die Antwoord medley. However, it was the legendary Daniele Pascal who was the indisputable champion of the cabaret stage, with Steven Stead describing her shows at the Rhumbelow Theatre in Durban as both 'nostalgic and revelatory'. He continues: 'Pascal still has the power to stir and engage an audience. I went out of a sense of duty and was totally won over, as I was when I first saw her perform twenty years ago.'

What was your favourite musical, opera or cabaret you saw in South Africa during 2013? Leave your comments beneath this article as we continue to celebrate local theatre in 2013 - and be sure to watch out for next year's musicals and operas, which include THE SOUND OF MUSIC, SHOW BOAT, LE NOZZE DI FIGARO and POSTCARD FROM MOROCCO.


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From This Author David Fick