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CITY PRESS REVIEW: SA musical King Kong is back and a knockout success

2017-08-13 00:00
Nondumiso Tembe
Nondumiso Tembe (Photo: Supplied, City Press)

Cape Town - Almost 60 years after King Kong defied the apartheid status quo and opened at Wits University’s Great Hall in Johannesburg, the curtain rose once again on this landmark musical in Cape Town earlier this month.

Reimagined for a contemporary audience, the word ‘curtain’ is figurative when it comes to The Fugard theatre – its stage is always brilliantly set for maximum use of the intimate space.

The excitement was palpable on opening night. Some in the audience had seen the original and were keen to see how it had stood the test of time.

Of course, it hadn’t, which is why improvements were made to the script, new songs were written and new characters added. The result? Expectations were exceeded, as one audience member put it.

The celebratory atmosphere at the opening-night party was testimony to the artistic talent we have in this country, on and off stage. “Where have they been?” some asked about the actors.

“Right under our noses,” to quote Sne Dladla’s King Kong character, Pop.

Most of the all-star cast has considerable experience in theatre, film and television. Dladla, one of music and theatre legend David Kramer’s many protégés, produces his best performance yet as narrator, boxing umpire, barber to Andile Gumbi’s King Kong and suitor to Lerato Mvelase’s Petal.

DLAMINI IN THE RING

Dladla sets the scene, relating the story of the rise and fall of Ezekiel “King Kong” Dlamini in the ring. Dlamini left his hometown of Vryheid at 14 and ended up in Johannesburg, where he gambled until he found himself in the sparring rooms of the Bantu Men’s Social Centre.

His legendary prowess as a non-European heavyweight boxing champ began to diminish after he was beaten by Simon “Greb” Mthimkulu. Jailed for murdering his girlfriend in 1957, Dlamini’s life sentence at Leeukop Prison Farm near the City of Gold lasted less than two weeks – he was found drowned, aged 32.

The girlfriend, Joyce, the queen of the Back of the Moon shebeen in Sophiatown, is played by Nondumiso Tembe, whom I met at the party.

The Los Angeles-based actress and award-winning singer-songwriter hopes her performance will give audiences more insight into Joyce as a human being and help them understand the choices she made – she did what she had to do.

Gumbi as King Kong towers over her petite frame, looking every inch the champion boxer. Credit must go to boxing coach Chris Mugisho and fight choreographer Richard Lothian for their contributions.

Gumbi, who made his Broadway debut as Simba in Disney’s The Lion King, and Tembe, whose credits include HBO’s Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning series True Blood, are an iconic double treat.

Internationally acclaimed dancer, director and choreographer Gregory Maqoma excelled at his task. Conscious of keeping the dance in the kwela era – within the context of Sophiatown, and the 50s and 60s dance forms – Maqoma found a new rhythm for the song It’s A Wedding.

His choreography incorporates Zulu indlamu with isicathamiya and delighted the audience.

HEART AND SOUL

Musically, my favourites King Kong, Strange Things Happen, Back of the Moon and Quickly In Love are there.

The moving choral rendition of Life Goes On is arguably the best showcase of the vocal talent of the company. That and The Business Of Fear, are two of the new additions to the musical, the latter highlighting the sterling performance of Sanda Shandu as Lucky, the meanest tsotsi, who orchestrates King Kong’s pivotal loss
in the ring.

When it comes to listing all the standout cast members, I face the same challenge as I do when choosing the most memorable songs. They have poured their hearts and souls into this “killer show”, and their effort shows in every note, movement and line of dialogue. Nobody can be overlooked.

However, the acting experience that Tshamano Sebe brings to his portrayal of Jack, King Kong’s boxing coach, deserves special mention.

Todd Matshikiza’s inspirational score, and Pat Williams’ original book and lyrics provide the foundation for this restaging. The revised book (with additional lyrics) is by Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and playwright William Nicholson.

Musical direction is by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (after the original musical director Stanley Glasser) and Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba, with arrangements and additional music by Lingenfelder. The nine-piece band is directed by Lucwaba.

I can’t say it better than producer Eric Abraham himself: “The extraordinary cast and creative team … have knocked my socks off.”

King Kong: The Musical event information:

Venue: Fugard Theatre, Cape Town
Dates: Until September 2
Tickets: R130 to R230 at Computicket

King Kong moves to The Mandela Theatre in Johannesburg from 12 September until 8 October. Tickets R150 to R250 at Webtickets. 

(Photos: Supplied by City Press)