Ice spectacle… and Scrooge

A scene from the Imperial Ice Stars’ Cinderella on Ice, which headed for Cape Town’s Artscape Theatre from January 10 to 28 after a successful Johannesburg season at Montecasino’s Teatro.

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BILLY SUTER took a drive to Johannesburg to take in two Christmas season successes at Montecasino  – the Russian Imperial Ice Stars’ sumptuous Cinderella on Ice at the large Teatro (a production that closed on January 6 to  visit Cape Town’s Artscape theatre from January 10 to 28) and the small-scale two-hander, A Christmas Carol, at Pieter Toerien’s Upstairs Studio (which closes on January 14).
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WHAT a great time of the year to head for Gauteng by car, when many in Johannesburg are still on leave or holidaying out of town, making the usual horror of congested roads and malls in that city a heck of a lot more bearable.

A pleasant drive from Durban earlier this week to see two of Johannesburg’s festive season theatre crowd-pullers proved a most rewarding experience.

First up was the Russian Imperial Ice Stars’ Cinderella on Ice, marking this touring team’s third ice spectacle on local shores – after their The Sleeping Beauty on IceThe Nutcracker on Ice and Swan Lake on Ice.

The company has not visited Durban before so it is certainly worth considering a drive from KwaZulu-Natal if spectacle and skating talent excite you. Do note, however, that this is a new variation of the popular rags-to-riches story, at the large Teatro at Montecasino, and offers a plot rather far away from the more familiar Disney version.

I say this because there were some very puzzled, and quite vocal kids, in a row behind me at Wednesday’s performance who were clearly expecting something different.

This Cinderella takes place in a Siberian town, where the title character, a humble chorus dancer, lives with her clockmaker father, two nasty stepsisters and a vain stepmother who happens to be the ballet mistress at the town’s Palace Theatre.

Thrust into the limelight, Cinderella captivates the handsome Lord Mayor’s son, the town’s most eligible bachelor, with her graceful performance – and the stepmother and her daughters are not happy.

The programme and poster image for Cinderella On Ice.

When the Lord Mayor’s son holds a ball to celebrate his birthday, Cinderella and her family are invited – but an enchanted clock comes to life and makes things difficult for her.

However, with help from her father and a crystal ball-carrying gypsy fortune teller, all ends well, of course, and love triumphs.

The principals are uniformally superb in a pacy production that features South African skater Fiona Kirk as the gypsy. She also doubles in a standout aerial ballet making use of silks, in which she is partnered with her husband, impressive and amusing Ukranian skater Volodymyr Khodakivskyy, who also plays the Dressmaker.

The show has no narration, only the enchanting music score composed by Tim A Duncan and Edward Barnwell, both highly regarded contemporary composers. It was recorded by the 72-piece Moscow State Cinematic Orchestra and 10 soloists from the Manchester Symphony Orchestra.

The Imperial Ice Stars are a 22-member cast and many have performed with the company at some of the world’s most prestigious venues, from Sadler’s Wells in London’s West End to the Esplanade Theatre in Singapore.

The group is on its seventh tour to South Africa and presenting a show conceived and choreographed by award-winning ice director Tony Mercer, together with three of the world’s most respected ice coaches – Evgeny Platov,  dual Olympic gold medallist and four-time World Champion; and the 2006 and 2007 ice dancing world champions, Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski.

It is a mesmerising production and, as the producers have pointed out, continues to break new ground in the genre of ice dancing. Exceptional skating feats, some apparently only seen in Olympic arenas and some never attempted before, are performed within the confines of a frozen theatre stage occupied by an ace, attractive team of skaters that have won more than 300 competition medals between them.

Lifts, spins, splits, jumps… they are all there, along with balletic moments, formation dancing and surprise delights including use of fire, water (a rain sequence in a courtyard), aerial work and flying sequences.

The setting for the first act is a Siberian town square, designed by one of Australia’s top scenic designers, Eamon D’Arcy. In the second half we welcome a black and silver art deco theatre, where the “clock-strikes-12” sequence takes on a more dramatic interpretation.

The show, which makes use of 14 tons of ice on stage and took 18 months of pre-production planning, boasts fine costumes from Albina Gabueva, head designer at Moscow’s famed Stanislavsky Theatre.

Booking for the Johannesburg and Cape Town performances is at Computicket outlets.

On Thursday night this week I attended the altogether different, and much smaller-scaled, A Christmas Carol, a novel version of the classic Charles Dickens tale, at the Upstairs Studio at Montecasino’s Pieter Toerien Theatre.

Poster image for A Christmas Carol.

I was enchanted by the deceptive simplicity and inventiveness of a 75-minute show, presented with no interval, which stars Jason Ralph as miserly Scrooge, who learns life lessons one Christmas Eve, when visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.

Ralph will be remembered for his excellent performance as the title character in KickstArt’s award-winning Sweeney Todd in Durban (a role filled by Jonathan Roxmouth for the South African tour). Ralph was also excellent as suave and conniving Billy Flynn in KickstArt’s stellar 2017 Durban production of the musical, Chicago.

He is on good form again as Ebenezer Scrooger, in a production that makes clever use of some eerily effective animation, puppet charcters, props and the inventive and amusing Narat Loots.

Loots, in simple black, appears as every other character in the story, while also being a props mover and puppeteer. That she also created the animation that creeps in and through areas on stage to move the story along is another feather in her cap.

The Studio stage is tiny so it is impressive, indeed, that this story can be so inventively realised, my only niggle being spotlights often being shone into the eyes of  audience members. However, with no curtain on the Studio stage, it becomes a necessary frustration to enable the performers to manoeuvre props and scene changes.

A Christmas Carol, cleverly adapted and directed by Elizma Badenhorst, features original music by Wessel Odendall and narration by Christopher Dudgeon.

It has only a few more performances, ending on January 14, but if you can attend do so. It’s a very sweet treat.

SIDENOTE: I was so impressed with The Hussar Grill, a new restaurant that opened late in December beside the small fountain near the Teatro theatre, that I thought I’d spread a few words about it. My partner, Gordon, and I dropped in for steaks before Cinderella on Ice and had excellent service and yummy, complimentary olives with crisp, golden, pastry flakes as a starter. I had a great 300g Chateaubriand (the brandy flame-lit at the table) for R195 (including chips or veg) and Gordon enjoyed his Carpetbagger fillet for the same price. The big cherry on top was that one can take along one’s own wine and pay no corkage. Big bonus. Check them out!

The new Hussar Grill near the Teatro theatre at Montecasino.

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