Wednesday, November 28, 2018

MADIBA - The Musical

Written and composed by Jean-Pierre Hadida - Book by Jean-Pierre Hadida & Alicia Sebrien English adaptation by Dylan Hadida and Dennis Watkins
Directed by Pierre-Yves Duchesne and Dennis Watkins
Musical Direction by Michael Tyack - Choreographed by Johan Nus
Canberra Theatre Centre 22nd – 24th November 2018
Performance on 24th November reviewed by Bill Stephens

Perci Moeketsi as Nelson Mandela (c) and some of the ensemble in
"Madiba - The Musical"

Although it’s called “Madiba The Musical”, this production aimed at celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela, is more like an interesting hybrid. Certainly musical theatre, but not really a conventional Broadway musical, not really a musical documentary and not really a concert, it has elements of all three, as it alternates between staged scenes and tableau.

 Performed with passion and commitment by a talented cast of triple-threat performers, “Madiba – The Musical” focusses on the impact of apartheid in South Africa through a group of fictional characters whose lives were impacted during Mandela’s lifetime.

Mandela (Perci Moeketsi) is presented as a beatified figure. His history is annunciated by a charismatic narrator (David Denis) who delivers the salient historical facts in rap poetry while performing intricate hip hop moves. As Mandela, Moeketsi is a well cast. He brings a quiet dignity to the role, has a more than passing physical resemblance to the man, particularly in the second half when his hair is greyed, and a commanding voice which he uses most effectively for Mandela’s  final climactic monologue. However the script never allows Mandela to be any more than a symbol, so that apart from historical dot points, the audience learns nothing about Mandela, the man. 
Ruva Ngwenya as Winnie Mandela in "Madiba - The Musical" 

 Similarly for Winnie Mandela, played by Ruva Ngwenya, who, despite her strong stage presence and excellent singing voice, is given little opportunity by the script to make much impact. What a show this might have been had the script explored the relationship between these two extraordinary characters rather than their political significance.

Instead humanity is reserved for the story of a young artist William Xulu, (played at this performance by Tarik Frimpong), who falls in love with Helena, (Madeline Perrone), the daughter of the embittered Police Chief, Peter Van Leden (Blake Erickson). William’s sister, Sandy Xulu, is in a relationship with Sam Onotou, (Tim Omaji), who, having been inspired by his imprisonment with Mandela, preaches his message. Through these characters the audience glimpse examples of apartheid, but their story is too clichéd and predictable to have much impact.
Tim Omaji (Timomatic) as Sam Onotou in "Madiba - The Musical" 

Unfortunately, the original French book and lyrics for “Madiba - The Musical” seems to have lost something in translation for this Australian production, with often trite dialogue and lyrics, and songs and scenes reminiscent of other musicals, think “Hamilton”, “Fiddler on the Roof”, “Les Miserables”. Indeed it comes as no surprise to learn that the composer, Jean-Pierre Hadida, had been an associate of Claude-Michel Schonberg, the composer of “Les Miserables”, because at least two of the songs, “My Civilization” and “It’s Time Now To Forgive”, bare striking similarity to songs from that musical.

Generally though the songs are attractive and tuneful, with the high points provided by the dancing in the ensemble scenes for which choreographer, Johan Nus has embraced a variety of dance styles to spectacular effect. There was also a magic moment at this performance when audience members joined in softly as the cast sang the South African National Anthem. 

Throughout the scenery and staging is direct and simple. Liberal use of images projected on to screens and scrims, and ubiquitous busy intelligent lighting, provides some spectacle. However the scenes in which actors are wheeled on and off stage on pre-set trucks often left the stage looking sparse and under dressed.  The most effective scenes are the two-level prison sequences played behind scrims. 

The prison scene in "Madiba - The Musical" 

While never quite achieving its stated ambition of providing a powerful and uplifting celebration of Nelson Mandela, “Madiba – The Musical”, at its best, offers a unique and sometimes exhilarating theatrical experience which shouldn’t be missed.

                                                                      Photos provided.

                 This review also appears in Australian Arts Review.