BWW Reviews: New South African Show ORPHEUS IN AFRICA All Set for Classic Musical Status

Aubrey Poo as the titutlar character in ORPHEUS IN AFRICA
Photo credit: Jesse Kramer

The announcement of a new South African musical is always a welcome one. While it is wonderful to see first class revivals of established American and British shows, like the Fugard's smash hit, THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW, and their upcoming productions of CABARET and WEST SIDE STORY, original South African works in this genre are few and far between. For musicals, it is an expensive road to travel from concept to production. The context of musical theatre production in this country rarely allows for workshop runs or other developmental platforms that have become increasingly popular in the United States since A CHORUS LINE made its bow in the 1970s. "Musicals are not written," the adage goes. "They are rewritten."

South Africa's original musical of the moment, ORPHEUS IN AFRICA, is a new piece from David Kramer. Kramer has his share of hits and misses in the musical theatre arena, including the wildly popular KAT AND THE KINGS (in collaboration with Taliep Petersen, with whom he also created DISTRICT SIX) and the disastrously derivative SOME LIKE IT VROT. In his hands, ORPHEUS IN AFRICA proves to be a story worth telling but one - like most new musicals - that needs refining in the way it tells its story. It has already been announced that the show will return for a second run this September, and now it the time when the real work must begin for Kramer - if the aim is to create an artistic triumph that deserves a place alongside the truly great works of musical theatre of the international stage.

Lynelle Kenned in ORPHEUS IN AFRICA
Photo credit: Jesse Kramer

ORPHEUS IN AFRICA tells the story of Orpheus McAdoo and his singing troupe, The Virginia Jubilee Singers, as they tour a world speeding towards the dawn of the twentieth century. A troupe that embraces spiritual music as well as classical secular extracts, Orpheus and his troupe shun the tradition of minstrelsy, even when adopted by African Americans in an attempt to renegotiate those traditions in a more authentic manner. As the popularity of the Virginia Jubilee Singers declines and that of the minstrels increases, Orpheus finds himself faced with a crisis: how can he incorporate popular performance styles and new trends into his work without compromising his identity as an African American and his integrity as a man intolerant of stereotypes and colonialist attitudes?

On paper, it is clear where the central conflict of ORPHEUS IN AFRICA lies; on stage, this play about identity is sometimes overwhelmed by the vast canvas of social context against which it plays. The social commentary that the piece delivers, particularly on the issues of race, racial representation, ethnicity and heritage, is essential to the piece, but the issue here is one of balance - particularly when it comes to the issue faced by so many biographical properties: just how much license is there to manipulate fact in the pursuit of good drama?

In the case of ORPHEUS IN AFRICA, Kramer perhaps errs on the side of caution, and the result is one where the conflict curiously does not externalise itself in the narrative. Part of this has to do with the way the piece is set up. A narrator - neither the protagonist nor a character delivering commentary of any significance - distances the audience from the central conflict of the piece. And although Orpheus is featured in a number midway through the first act, "Going Home to Africa", it is not until much later that the character is given a definitive moment in the score to outline who he is and what he wants. This being a musical, the score should drive the development of plot and character from the opening scene onwards. Another problem with the musical's structure is that instead of upping the stakes as the narrative develops, the book falls into the trap of dramatising one event after the next. Many of the individual scenes are beautifully written, so this is rather a pity. With greater focus on developing the through line of the piece, ORPHEUS IN AFRICA could have an uncharacteristically strong book for a musical.

Jessica Sole and Aubrey Poo in ORPHEUS IN AFRICA
Photo credit: Jesse Kramer

Kramer's score for ORPHEUS IN AFRICA is serviceable with some highlights in "Coming Home to Africa", "Far From Home" and "I'm Leaving". Charl-Johan Lingenfelder's arrangements of the songs make an invaluable contribution in elevating the material, particularly in cases where contemporary flavours need to be disguised with a sense of period. However, it is Kramer and Lingenfelder's adaptations of the traditional songs incorporated into the score, and the vocal arrangements done by the latter, that end up being the highlights of the night. The transformation of "Sweet Ellie Rhee" into "Sarie Marais" provides some of the show's best comic moments, while "The Rhythm Train" makes for a rousing finale.

One of the strongest aspects of ORPHEUS IN AFRICA is the set of performances that brings the story to life. Aubrey Poo imbues Orpheus with a strong sense of dignity and purpose, investing in his interpretation a strong sense of the character's identity crisis. As Mattie, Lynelle Kenned makes the most of a role that is bound by the conventions of operetta. It would be interesting to see what she might do with the role were the stakes surrounding Mattie's relationship to Orpheus raised, particularly in the second act where Orpheus finds a confidante in Australian bartender, Rose. At this point, Mattie all but disappears from the plot, only to return for the finale without any sense of the situation having been resolved. In a third key role, Jill Levenberg plays McAddo stalwart Lucy with so much heart that she just about steals the show: her role as narrator is a part of makes her feature so strongly, but it is Levenberg's emotional grasp of the role that makes her performance so memorable.

Photo credit: Jesse Kramer

Among the supporting players, Sne Dladla and Dean Balie offer much of the comic relief in the show, especially in their appearances as a minstrel duo, Egbert Washburn and Ernst Logan. Jessica Sole plays three roles, most memorably Lady Loch, whose efforts bring Orpheus to Africa in the first place. Gideon Lombard offers similar support in a variety of roles, most effectively as J.P. Toerien, the real-life husband of one of the women who might have inspired the Afrikaans lyrics of "Sarie Marais". Bianca Flanders and Edith Plaatjies are also memorable as two gossipy members of The Virginia Jubilee Singers, both delivering excellent vocals in the songs in which they are featured.

Indeed, the company - which also includes Zolani Shangase, Sanda Shandu, Godfrey Johnson, Graham Bourne, Grant Peres and Katlego Moncho - delivers one of the best sung renditions of a musical theatre score in recent memory. Along with musicians Stefan Lombard and Matt Foster and under the direction of vocal director Alistair Izobell, the company shows a complete mastery of the musical aspects of ORPHEUS IN AFRICA.

The design of ORPHEUS IN AFRICA has been conceptualised and executed with care. Birrie le Roux's costume design is world class, combining a sense of the period with an astutely measured dose of theatrical flair. Saul Radomsky's unit set works well to create the multiple settings of the piece in collaboration with a series of projections that help to establish time and place. The lighting by Daniel Galloway and Benjamin du Plessis perfectly sets the mood and emotional tone for the story being told, while Mark Malherbe's beautifully understated sound design is perfect for the show.

ORPHEUS IN AFRICA is all set to be a grand, old-fashioned classic musical in the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition. Kramer has unearthed a fantastic historical footnote and found the reason that this story deserves to be raised into our consciousness more than a century after Orpheus McAdoo's death in 1900. As in the development of any musical theatre piece, however, there is still work to be done for ORPHEUS IN AFRICA to measure up to the greatest musical theatre classics. After more than six decades of writing musical theatre, Stephen Sondheim outlined his three tenets for lyric writing, which really apply to many aspects of theatre-making, and this is the only advice I would offer - most humbly - to Kramer and his team as they refine this potential gem of a show: "Content Dictates Form / Less Is More / God Is in the Details / all in the service of / Clarity / without which nothing else matters."

ORPHEUS IN AFRICA will run at the Fugard Theatre until February 22, with a return season confirmed for 22 September through 31 October 2015. Bookings for all performances are open and tickets can be reserved by calling the Fugard Theatre box office on 021 461 4554 or visiting Computicket to book online.

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From This Author David Fick