Tiger Bay the musical harbours greatness within

Tiger Bay the musical harbours greatness within

Ambitious and enveloping new musical, Tiger Bay harbours greatness within writes Peter Tromp in this week’s edition of The Next 48hOURS.

Review – Tiger Bay the Musical

DIRECTORS: Melly Still and Max Barton

CAST: John Owen-Jones, Luvo Tamba, Vikki Bebb, Judy Ditchfield, Ruby Llewelyn, Busisiwe Ngejane, Andrew Laubscher, Zolani Shangase

VENUE: Artscape Opera House until May 27

REVIEWER: Peter Tromp

This South Africa/Wales co-produced debut musical hits all the right marks in terms of scale, spectacle and scope. One cannot accuse directors Melly Still and Max Barton for not delivering on the wow factor. It is obvious right from the outset that hardly any expense was spared in the realisation of Michael Williams’ wildly ambitious dream. Yet, as much as I want to, I can’t turn a blind eye to some of ‘Tiger Bay the Musical’s’ teething problems.

Perhaps no form of popular entertainment suffers as much in terms of comparisons to its past than the musical genre. Whenever an artist is bold enough to debut a new piece, people waste no time in comparing it to all manner of works in the popular cannon. Many forget that a lot of the musicals that are household names today had rocky starts and oftentimes it took a while for them to be embraced by the theatregoing public at large. Of course, times have changed and peoples’ expectations with it. In our age of instant gratification, if you’re not humming the songs on the way home and if they aren’t stuck in your head for days afterwards, many people might consider a new musical a failure. That is something ‘Tiger Bay’ does not deserve. I wish we still had a culture where works of art could leisurely seep into the popular cultural consciousness. Sure, instant “hummability” is not this musical’s strongest suit, but if you appreciate an enveloping story and a cast of memorable characters one really gets invested in, then Tiger Bay will provide you with plenty to get lost in. Too much, in fact.

Tiger Bay is a whole lot of musical to digest. The music can be quite beautiful and is definitely rousing, but it there is so much of it I can hardly recall a single composition. Also, many of the songs are so verbose that I often struggled to make out what the actors were emoting about. It might be absurd to suggest surtitles at an English production, but since this is a brand new work, it might assist in audiences becoming more intimately familiar with all of these new songs.

One thing that cannot be faulted is the casting. The marvellous SA-Welsh ensemble that one sets out on this epic journey with makes even the patchiest segments a joy to sit through. One name that deserves special mention is John Owen-Jones. This seasoned Broadway and West End professional made jaws drop on opening night with his passionate vocals and is worth the price of admission alone.

I commend Michael Williams on his ambition and for his impassioned defence of multiculturalism in a time when many sectors of the world appear ready to retreat back into isolationism. This is a musical well worth your time; one that will actually inspire some thought regarding some complex subject matter. Yet, I cannot help but feel that Tiger Bay hasn’t quite reached its sweet spot yet. It feels like it needs some time for form and content to become married harmoniously. It deserves that time.

* Book at Computicket.