Ultimate schmaltz meets impeccable polish


COME, boy: The love for the urchin (Emma-Rose Blacher) and the stray. Photograph by Christiaan Kotze

Children with their dogs in a tale about orphans during the years of the 1930s Depression – one that ends with a resounding happily-ever-after: It’s a flawless recipe for absolute schmaltz overload, for most directors, performers and producers. This version of Annie, however, replete with a significant child cast – in fact, with three alternative child casts – is so well honed, so infinitesimally plotted and so carefully crafted that it really flies: from the set to the cast to the choreography to the behaviour of the dog, it’s a tight ship of a show and gives dignity to the notion of ultimate schmaltz.

When the eponymous little girl (Emma-Rose Blacher) with her characteristic red hair and her impeccably wretched orphan-Annie brown cardigan emerges on stage after the dormitory scene, she will melt your heart and blow your mind at the same time. Exuding a confidence way beyond her 12 years, Blacher presents the real deal in musical theatre’s hope for the future: she can sing, she can act, she can dance and her interface with her peers and adult performers is completely flawless. She lends the complicated character of Annie who has dreams and hopes in a harsh reality, endearing credibility. And this from an overwhelmingly enormous stage, in front of a packed audience.

Indeed, with all eyes and all spotlights on her, it is difficult to drag your eyes into other aspects of the work: It is beautifully directed in such a way that the child central to the tale never fades under the embrace of the story, which reaches from America’s New Deal to an interface with Roosevelt (Mike Huff), a navigation into the poverty of just-post-Depression America where morals and lives were fraying at the seams. Annie remains in the spotlight through incredibly beautiful and authentic costume changes and set shifts which will set your heart aflutter.

With Neels Claasen in the role of Daddy Warbucks (on opening night), and Charon Williams-Ros as the deliciously nasty and utterly morally flawed persona of Miss Hannigan, the work is satisfyingly tight, perfectly clear and as articulate as a comic book in the values it espouses. It’s one of those family shows that will leave you with hope in your heart and encourage you to remember why you need to have dreams for the future, even if everything feels broken and on the cusp of self-destruction

The casualty in your experience of this work, however, may be manifest in two areas: the audience around you and the hard-boiledness of the production. But, you may protest, the more hard-boiled the better? In an age where digital technology is able to remove every speck of dust, uncertainty or scratch in a musical performance, you yearn for the soft-edged nuances you get from listening to vinyl.

Effectively, Annie, which is crafted as a franchise production to tour the world and features the enormous creative input of performers, has a kind of colour-by-number status. But don’t get me wrong: this is not an easy thing to emulate, from its plotting to its choreography, the training of local performers to the ultimate success of the work – consider pieces such as Dreamgirls, Chicago, Hairspray and others of that ilk that have graced South African stages in the last few years. Rather, the effects of this beautiful show are designed so that they may be exactly replicated, whether the work is being staged in Johannesburg or Honolulu. And this is where the hard-boiledness comes in: the work is so tight, so hard-edged in its values that it may feel ever so slightly too slick for comfort.

But your comfort zones might be upset for another reason too: It’s an odd reality that when the average theatre goer hears that a work is about children, or features children, they round up their tousle-headed sproglets, wipe their noses, change their nappies and whip them off to a fully fledged three hour long theatre production with loud booming noises, a complex political story, flashing lights and expensive tickets. And what happens? The sproglet in question howls its head off and is severely traumatised by the event. To say nothing of what it does for the audience with the misfortune to be seated within earshot of them. The theatre simply cannot be held responsible when an audience member flagrantly ignores the “no under 3” proscription on the booking pack: no one wants a fight with an unhappy patron minutes before the curtain rises. Or should they? Either way, this ain’t a show for the littlies, but it’s as good as it gets in terms of a life-shaking experience for the bigger children in the audience as it graciously skates through 1930s aesthetics, values and ethos.

  • Annie, based on the eponymous book by Thomas Meeham is directed by Nikolai Foster and Nick Winston. It features design by Charles Strouse (music), Martin Charnin (lyrics), Nick Winston (choreography), George Dyer (orchestration), Colin Richmond (set and costumes), Mark Malherbe (sound), Ben Cracknell (lighting) and Bryan Schimmel (musical direction). It is performed by Duane Alexander, Neels Claasen, Stefania du Toit, Michael Fullard, Ambre-Chanel Fulton, Delray Halgryn, Mike Huff, Stephen Jubber, Cat Lane, Michelle Lane, Anton Luitingh, Hope Maimane, Ben Mundy, Jenna Robinson Child, Taryn Sudding, Candice van Litsenborgh, Jonathan Raath, Richard Vorster and Charon Williams-Ros, with three child casts: Team Empire, comprising Emma-Rose Blacher, Kezia du Plessis, Talicia Marirti, Bonisiwe Nomoyi, Gemma Scarcella, Kyra Teague and Luca Teague; Team Madison, comprising Annika de Beer, Caitlin Dicker, Hannah Hayword, Mikayla Levick, Kundai Nyama, Omolola Peguillan and Anastasia Schroder; and Team Rockerfeller comprising Ariane Angelopoulo, Lilla Fleischmann, Kelli Hollander, Teagan McGinley, Mikah Smith, Lisa Solomon and Rachelle Weiss. [This review is premised on the performance of team Empire]. The live orchestra, under the baton of Bryan Schimmel and Kevin Kraak comprises Serge Cuca/Kevin Cook (violin), Carl James Ashford (flute, clarinet, alto sax, tenor sax), Donny Bouwer/Braam van Tonder/Michael Magner (trumpet, flugelhorn), Zbigniew Kobak/Nick Green (trombone, euphonium), Cobi van Wyk (percussion). It performs at Teatro, Montecasino in Fourways until November 27 and at Artscape Opera House in Cape Town December 2-January 8, 2017. Booking at Computicket.

How to celebrate an ordinary hairstylist


SEARCHING for a number: Tony Miyambo, the son to his father.

IF YOU HAVE ever lost someone you loved very deeply, you will know the surreal madness that makes you see your loved one amongst strangers in the street, in traffic, in the shape of a head, a distinctive movement of an arbitrary stranger. You will remember how the ridiculous minutiae of your life slowed to a momentous lethargy and you will recognise how your memories of the silliest of details when you heard the horrible news, remains irrevocable. The Cenotaph of Dan wa Moriri brings the horror of loss to stage with a intense wisdom, a light hand and a sophisticated sense of levity. It is nothing short of sheer masterpiece.

Blending the unequivocal skills of arguably the finest in South African theatre at the moment – Gerard Bester, Tony Miyambo and William Harding, this work first saw light of day in Johannesburg at the So So1o festival in 2014. Its presence on a professional stage, for a proper season, gives it elbow room to grow and shine with relentless energy.

It’s an intimate tale told with such beauty and candidness that it overleaps the boundaries of specificity and becomes about not only the loss of Miyambo’s precious father, but something universal. Using repeat refrains that engage with place and context, the rhythm of the words, the give and take of the language are satisfying to experience: it’s structured similarly to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which skirts and flirts around the enormity of horror with words and associations and a kind of emotional choreography, imitating how the mind embraces huge news.

But more than this, it’s a tale of great belly laughter and immense sadness and it is safe in the supremely competent hands of Miyambo and replete with the inimitable texture of life in Tembisa. Never slipping into the soppily maudlin or the foolishly unfunny, the work is magicked into life with hundreds of tiny blocks of wood. Evocative of Fruit by Paul Noko, this curious innovation in set design, credited to Phala Ookeditse Phala in the earlier manifestation of the work, presents a fantastic give and take between scales as it veers between childhood memories and grown up ones.

They’re blocks of wood which enables Miyambo to plot the sequence of events, the map of his childhood neighbourhood, the peppering of tombstones in a cemetery. There’s a visual rhythm to this humble material, that can render a wooden offcut, a cenotaph, and a table leg a part of a goat. The Cenotaph of Dan wa Moriri celebrates the life of a humble hairstylist, as it confronts the issues of loss: loss of bearing because of illness; loss of life; loss of a grave number; loss of context. It’s a production which demands that you take along several tissues, and while you might still be trying to catch your breath at its denouement, you will leave with your heart on fire with a mix of emotions. In short: it is completely beautiful. The play of the year, so far.

  • The Cenotaph of Dan wa Moriri is written by Gerard Bester, Tony Miyambo and William Harding and directed by Gerard Bester. Featuring design by Julian August (lighting), it is performed by Tony Miyambo at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until October 30. Call 011 832 1641 or visit www.markettheatre.co.za

Where giggles and song should part ways


MAGIC fingers: Ian von Memerty. Photograph courtesy Pieter Toerien Theatre.

A MEDLEY OF songs is a curious thing. It’s a bit like a Reader’s Digest compilation: enough to get your heart racing with nostalgia, but not enough to include every word. It’s a tight juxtaposition of hits that doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive, and yet the cohesive whole is delicious. This is the strength of Ian von Memerty’s Keyboard Killers, a celebration of eight men who wielded the piano with their fingers and their voice in a way that shaped the world, effectively.

From the simple melodies of Irving Berlin to the complex navigations through Beethoven and Handl that features in the beautiful complicated diversity of Billie Joel’s work, von Memerty is at the helm of his Yamaha piano, with a rich sense of self, a double bass on his right and a set of bongo drums on his left. Who could ask for anything more?

The show, structured like many of its ilk, is simply about entertainment, and conjoined with the incredibly fine work by pianists including Freddie Mercury, Noël Coward, Cole Porter, Stevie Wonder, Fats Waller and John Legend, it contains a rash of obligatory funny bits. The truth is, these funnies hurt the intensity of the programme and the potential brilliance of von Memerty on keyboard. Spewing self-deprecating jokes at various interregna in the show, von Memerty doesn’t do complete justice to his own skill, which soars and reaches out when he plays the work of Billie Joel and Freddie Mercury, but loses a sense of momentum in the bum wiggling exercises, the tired political jibes and the impromptu clowning.

Keyboard Killers is a pleasant enough show, but one not convincingly directed to celebrate von Memerty’s true fire – the kind of work that earned him his veteran keyboard king status.

  • Keyboard Killers is compiled and performed by Ian von Memerty with Bronwyn Clacherty on percussion and Andrew Warneke on bass. It performs in the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, until October 30. Visit pietertoerien.co.za

Man to man over a brandy


POWER of three: the man (Andre Odendaal), his drink and his barman (Wilhelm van der Walt). Photograph by Jo Spies.

It’s a great rarity when you are privileged enough to see a play so ununtterably perfect that you feel were you to never see a play again, it would suffice. Fairly low-key, Dop is unequivocally a play of this standard. Premised on the clichéd honest friendship between a man, his drink and his barman, the work reaches into the subtleties of Beckettian nuance as it boldly celebrates the priceless legacy of Afrikaans balladeer Johannes Kerkorrel.

Indeed, Dop is a play with prescience, dealing as it does with the schism between South Africa’s white Afrikaans-speaking contemporary youth, bruised and damaged by fear and immigration,  and the previous generation. Frank Venter (André Odendaal) was born on February 29, 1960, and his father was so mean that he only ever got a birthday present every four years. And at that, it was something manly and utilitarian, like a screwdriver or a spanner. Tim (Wilhelm van der Walt), the barman is a ‘laaitie’, born in the 1990s, but he too has suffered the pain and conflict of love and bias and uncertainty, and he’s quite content to not speak of it.

The brandy nurtures an easiness between the two. And the melding of set and lighting, text and nuance as Frank gets drunker and drunker, pulls you, in the audience, into the vortex of the honesty and fragility that comes of inebriation. It’s happy inebriation in the most part, something that sees Frank’s “Puppies” – his Hushpuppy shoes – left behind, but it opens a level of unbiased brave freedom that finds both men pondering their own broken dreams, but also love, loss and humanity in a way they probably wouldn’t be brave enough to do by sober light of day.

Beautifully performed, Dop in Afrikaans with a bit of Australian English, is a polished gem, woven through intricately and intimately with the life and music of Kerkorrel and his Voëlvry movement which impacted so significantly on Afrikaans youth of the 1990s, but this is so much more than an historical account. It boasts an internal architecture which contains focal nubs that are touched upon and not laboured, woven with love and never forced. The work is also deliciously peppered with Kerkorrel’s ballads – and a bit of Tom Jones – but the segueing of music and text, socio-political reference, sexual identity and the spinning of the bar is wise and fabulous. And just right. You will laugh with a pure heart at the physical gymnastics and cry with a full one at the tale’s astonishing denouement.

  • Dop is written by Retief Scholtz and directed by Sylvaine Strike. Featuring design by Sylvaine Strike and Kosie Smit (set and lighting), Didi Kriel (music) and Madelaine Lötter (costumes), it is performed by André Odendaal and Wilhelm van der Walt in the Studio Theatre, Montecasino, Fourways, until October 23. Visit kosie.biz or www.pietertoerien.co.za

The wisdom of Pippi


WHAT: Me worry? Not a chance. Pippi (Yarden Dagan) confronts the establishment: the welfare officer Mrs Prysselius (Sandy Bota) with the cops, Klang (Graeme Wicks) and Kling (Marvin Molepo). Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

NOËL COWARD ARTICULATED it first in his 1935 song: Children on stage are complicated. They haven’t the work ethic of professionals. They can lose their hold on their character when they recognise people in the audience. Their parents can be the thing that pushes them into the limelight. They can grow irritatingly precocious, show off and bruise their role. But when you discover a child capable of graciously sidestepping all those clichés, you’ve got to hold tight: Eleven-year-old Yarden Dagan captures this spunky maverick with a maturity beyond her years and an ability to seduce the audience which simply makes this show fly.

Not that the adult casting for this work is shabby or lacking in any way. Indeed, headed by Luciano Zuppa, who plays an utterly delightful Captain Longstocking and Thunder, one of the incompetent crooks; and Sandy Bota, as the inimitable Mrs Prysselius who blends prissyness and bossiness with a real ability to jive, the work is bold and beautiful and beggars comparison with the version that this theatre produced some years ago.

It’s got to do with the magic ingredient of the children themselves, and the astute wisdom of the play’s director, Francois Theron, to know when and where it is appropriate to cast the littlies. This Pippi Longstocking is a sheer delight: in terms of how the work engages the audience, how the child herself is able to give this naughty little girl who was invented in the 1940s contemporary flesh and blood that is unapologetically rooted in Sweden and unapologetically about thumbing a nose to convention.

But something has to be said for that wig alone. Complementing a fantastically detailed body of costumes by Sarah Roberts, the characteristic red Pippi wig with plaits akimbo almost deserves a credit of its own. Poking into the eyes of the neighbouring kids, Tommy (Matthew Rusznyak) and Annika (Rufaro Shava), it’s cheeky and raucous and completely solid in how it embraces Pippi’s values and personality.

Like the Harvey Comics character Little Lotta, in a sense, Pippi Longstocking is amazingly strong. She’s also super-likeable for her peers, has total disdain for regimented order and pattern and is feared and detested by the adult community, for this reason. Indeed, the work presents the adults in it as considerably unsophisticated in their values. Pippi is a wild child, who arrives out of nowhere in suburbia, to live alone with her pet monkey called Mr Nielson and a horse in her kitchen. Her mother is an angel in heaven and her father is a pirate on the high seas. And armed with these credentials, and a big bag full of pirate gold, she’s an anomaly who can sing, dance and makes up life as she goes.

And the message: that life is about a lot more than following the rules or slipping into a puddle of self-pity. It’s about acting on instinct, about not being afraid to make mistakes and be vulnerable. And it’s about loving honestly and deeply.

  • Pippi Longstocking – The Musical is adapted for stage by Staffan Götestam, based on the eponymous children’s book by Astrid Lindgren. It is directed by Francois Theron and features design by Dale Scheepers (musical director), Nicol Sheraton (choreography), Sarah Roberts (costumes), Stan Knight (set) and Jane Gosnell (lighting). It is performed by Zoe Beavon, Sandy Bota, Marvin Molepo, Genevieve Olivier, Roberto Queiroz, Graeme Wicks and Luciano Zuppa, and three child casts, comprising Hannah Cohen, Yarden Dagan, Simone Greely, Khensani Mabaso, Gabriel Poulson, Matthew Rusznyak, Rufaro Shava, Max Stern and Ricci Waksman [this review is based on the work featuring Yarden Dagan, Matthew Rusznyak and Rufaro Shava] at the National Children’s Theatre, in Parktown, Johannesburg, until October 16. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za

Alas, too young


MY Lord: Jerry Mofokeng plays the Judge. Photograph by Mariola Biela.

A MAN STANDS on an otherwise empty stage. He wears pajama pants under a jacket, a children’s party hat on his head. And an expression of utter perplexity on his face. Thus begins Eva Mazza’s play Acceptance, an essay on the what ifs surrounding the tough monstrosity of contemporary filicide. It’s a moment of sheer haunting mystery which brings an element of poetry to an otherwise prosaic text.

Indeed, it’s not a moment that is capitalised on and grown in the texture and nub of this thematically important play. In 2014, a South African-born woman living in England suffocated her three young children to death. They were born with a degenerative condition called spinal muscular atrophy.  She was ultimately acquitted on charges of manslaughter. It was a story that took the world by an emotional storm and it is upon this narrative and the dilemmas it confronts that Acceptance is hung.

Asking several pertinent questions and splaying issues of handicap and murder, psychiatric illness and culpability wide, the play is hampered by a lack of nuance both in its writing and performances. The production speaks of a youthful enthusiasm: its casualty is a lack of convincing gravitas. And in many ways, it needs to grow more on the proverbial drawing board.

Reading the work’s précis, you might expect to be juddered into the horror of the angry ghosts of children badly done by, or the horrible whirligig of emotions of a damaged woman overwhelmed with a situation she cannot handle, but instead you are confronted by fairly wooden performances and a too-clear line of narrative, which opens up the perspective of the voiceless as it pleads the case of the victims. There are moments that feel like a synchronised poetry recital, and others which are meant to be crushed by monumental stress, but lie preciously fallow.

The presiding judge in the original case (Jerry Mofokeng) is awoken out of the blue, late one night by an annoying young white man (Francois Viljoen) at his door. Is this the scene of a heist? It feels troublingly disrespectful. When the young man’s two sisters (Lea Viver and Lisa Darryn Overy) enter the space, you realise there’s something more at play here. The work unfolds with a guilelessness which is disappointing: it’s too chronological, too literal and it answers too many of the questions it poses.

As a result, this work, reeking of immense potential, is thwarted. Had the cast been older, more sophisticated in their ability to represent young children, to get under the skin of murdered people seeking justice, this work would have exploded values and made your head spin. Instead it feels like an advocacy drama.

  • Acceptance is written by Eva Mazza and directed by Simona Mazza. Featuring design by Gavin Head (set construction) and Tara Senior (sound), it is performed by Jerry Mofokeng, Lisa Derryn Overy, Francois Viljoen and Lea Viver at The Fringe, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, until October 16. Call 0861 670 670 or visit www.joburgtheatre.com

Faceless, unforgettable women of Africa


MY queen: a work by Chepape Makgato.

AS YOU REACH the second landing of the staircase at the Market Theatre, something red grabs your eye: it’s a corner of one of the portraits by Khehla Chepape Makgato and you’re swept up the rest of the stairs on the momentum of this curious thing you see which you can’t quite fathom from your vantage point.

A series of portraits that speak with grand exuberance and the uncontained languages of colour, texture and the complicated ethos of a persona, Makgato’s Heroines of Southern Africa, his fourth solo exhibition, was initially mounted to correspond with the September season of the new Sesotho play  Mosali Eo U ’Neileng Eena, written by Ntšeliseng ’Masechele Khaketla. The play’s moved on to a season at the Soweto Theatre, but the exhibition’s season has been extended by a month.

Focusing on historical, mythical, legendary women within the artist’s ken, history and upbringing, this is no conventional show of pictures that kowtows to that rubric that has rendered Women’s Day in August a kind of pseudo Mother’s Day. Rather, demonstrating a brazen and bold understanding of transience and waste, like the American abstract expressionist Lee Krasner, Makgato shows in this guttural exploration of women – such as Modjadji, the rain queen; Nandi, mother of Shaka, and Batlokwa warrior queen Mantatisi – that he is not afraid to tear up his earlier work and reuse it.

These collages have a dynamism to them that is like a pent-up coil. While the compositions humbly and respectfully bow to the formal structure of the portrait, it is the energy within the work that casts you hither and yon, as emotional flesh of his legendary sitters takes the floor, almost as though he has stripped their faces of features, exposing only the raw complicated stuff that makes them who they are.

And in many respects, over and above the use of patterning and texture, as you stand in front of these extraordinary pieces, you find yourself celebrating an understanding of ethos rather than features. It’s a mature approach to the idea of a heroine. She faceless and yet has a more complex face than any individual sitter could have.

You may not know of the legendary women Makgato celebrates here. You may not respond to the words that appear on the works’ labels, with recognition or context. And while you may lose something by not knowing these women or what they mean in the broader unfurling of social and historical values, as you stand in front of these candid works, you are sucked into an image that will stay with you, unbidden.

It’s a curious thing. There’s an initiative at play in several local theatres where theatrical languages other than English are being used as medium. Admittedly experimental on several levels as they confront and pierce the comfort zones of established audiences used to seeing plays in English, there’s an edge here to artmaking that is coming into its own as truly and unapologetically African. Sifiso Zimba’s work Apple did this. On another level, Chepape Makgato does this. And in doing so, he haunts and taunts you.

  • The Heroines of Southern Africa by Chepape Makgato, is in the Barney Simon foyer, upstairs at the Market Theatre until October 31. 011 832 1641.