Orpheus is a bold new entry in the SA musical theatre cannon

Orpheus is a bold new entry in the SA musical theatre cannon

SHOW: Orpheus In Africa
DIRECTOR: David Kramer
CAST: Aubrey Poo, Lynelle Kenned, Zolani Shangase, Jill Levenberg, Jessica Sole, Dean Ballie, Sne Dladla, Sanda Shandu, Gideon Lombard, Bianca Flanders, Edith Plaatjies, Godfrey Johnson, Graham Bourne, Grant Peres & Katlego Moncho
VENUE: The Fugard Theatre until February 22
REVIEW: Peter Tromp

One of the most difficult things for an artist to do is to reinvent themselves. Artistic works have come to be regarded as purely consumer products by many in the millennial/digital age, and artists of all disciplines are almost expected to be able to offer these ravenous audiences something entirely different every time they release a new work. Forget that it takes years, and often decades to refine an artistic voice and sensibility.

There are numerous ways in which David Kramer’s ‘Orpheus In Africa’ is an artistic triumph – definitely the artist’s best work since his fabled collaborations with Taliep Petersen – but niftiest amongst these is the way he has managed to incorporate commentary on the ever-changing shifts in audience expectations and the pressure that puts on an artist to anticipate said shifts. Another aspect of the narrative that imbues ‘Orpheus’ with a richness uncommon amongst musical plays is the focus on the internal struggles of a cultured black man trying to find himself in a post-slavery world.
But at this point I’m sure you’re dying to know how it all sounds, and looks. Well, there’s nothing quite as catchy in ‘Orpheus In Africa’ as what you’d find in ‘Kat & The Kings’, but the music – a combination of jubilee standards intermixed with new compositions by Kramer – fits the subject matter to a tee and makes for a wonderfully intoxicating and sophisticated cocktail. The song ‘TheMirror’ – which closes Act One – ranks high amongst Kramer’s best compositions of recent times, but you’re unlikely to be humming it post-show the way you likely did with compositions from ‘District 6: The Musical’, or ‘Kat & The Kings’; or even ‘Ghoema’.

It’s too complex to immediately seep into your subconscious, but it is such a rousing and soulful expression of an individual wrestling with his own contradictions while trying to progress through a prejudiced world while holding his head high that it will stick in your memory for days after the show. (At this time I will say that if your definition of the success of a musical hinges solely on the “hummibility” of its songs, I feel kind of sorry for you.
There’s so much more to musicals than ‘Master Of The House’ and ‘How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?’, great though those songs may be.)
The immaculate costumes by Birrie Le Roux give the production a qualitative sheen that really zeroes in on one’s pleasure centre. There were times where I could just drink in the textures and subtle, character specific details and be perfectly contended. The set design by Saul Radomsky’s is deceptively simple and functional, but seamlessly facilitates the movement of the actors. The projected images of the locations from the era in which the show is set are also very successful in transporting one to that time.

Ultimately though, the success of a character centric musical like this hinges on the performances, and in this department ‘Orpheus In Africa’ boasts an embarrassment of riches. Bestriding the whole affair like a venerable colossus is Aubrey Poo, whose casting was a masterstroke. Poo is simply astonishing for virtually every moment he is on stage, whether in his character’s moments of quietude, or singing to the back row. He shares chemistry with just about every actor, bringing out the best of those around him even as you can’t tear your eyes away from him. Poo left a huge impression on me in ‘Diamonds and Dust’, the Barnyard Theatre produced tribute to South African music which showed at the Roxy Revue Bar in 2004, in which he lit up the entire show. It’s great to see that the promise he exhibited in such abundance in that show wasn’t a flash in the pan; he has progressed to become a true draw card of a performer.
The other performances from the universally excellent cast that jumped out at me were Jill Levenberg as Lucy Moten, the choir mistress of the Virginia Jubilee Singers, who is refined dignity personified; and Sne Dladla in numerous roles, who has undeniable comedic talents, but who’s touch is delicate enough to make you detect the sad impulses underneath his characters’ clownish performances.

Perhaps the thing I love most about ‘Orpheus In Africa’ is how much it asks of its audience. This is not one of those shows where you can sit back and recline and just expect to be whisked away on a magical musical journey. Kramer gets you invested in his wonderfully realised characters right from the off, and the many themes he explores will have you fully engaged throughout. The whole project imparts on one the feeling of something done right, from the ground up. It’s by no means perfect.
The second half is not nearly as thematically polished as the first, and it’s obvious that Kramer hasn’t quite figured out how to end the story, but I expect this to be solved in time. I’m willing to forgive ‘Orpheus’ any and all of its faults, for being such an incandescent entry in the South African musical theatre cannon.

* Tickets for ‘Orpheus In Africa’ cost from R130 to R220 per person via the Fugard Theatre box office on 021 461 4554; or Computicket.