SA theatre – 2019 in review

Drag queen Lola (Earl Gregory, centre) in cabaret with his Angels troupe. A scene from Kinky Boots at Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre until February 2, 2020. Picture by Jess Kate Kramer.

BILLY SUTER looks back on his theatre-going year (he saw 81 different shows in Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town in 2019) and selects highs and lows. Of course, not being able to see every stage production during the year, keep in mind that choices here are strictly personal.

A MUSICAL about friendship, ingenuity, love and acceptance is my choice for best musical of the year on the local theatre scene, a show I flew to Cape Town to see in July, and which has become such a hit that it has had its season extended twice and now runs until February 2, 2020.

It is, of course, the widely applauded Kinky Boots, the Fugard Theatre’s clever, original version of the West End and Broadway success. Director Matthew Wild’s slick, glossy, fun and moving production tells of unlikely pals that find they have more in common than they ever dreamed possible, and who discover that when you change your mind about someone, you can change your whole world.

Earl Gregory, as drag queen and trained boxer Lola, has never been better and, also taking into account his fine performance as The Baker in Durban theatre company KickstArt’s touring 2019 revival of Stephen Sondheim’s magical Into the Woods, easily gets my vote as South Africa’s Theatre Personality of the Year.

Jonathan Roxmouth, star of Chicago, Phantom of the Opera and Lenny, Andrew, Steve and Me.

A close second for this title would have to be the unfailingly impressive Jonathan Roxmouth, who not only toured globally this year in productions of Chicago (as lawyer Billy Flynn) and Phantom of the Opera (as the masked man himself), but staged a truly superb, sophisticated tribute to top creators of musicals, Lenny, Andrew, Steve and Me.

This captivating and clever show, featuring Rowan Bakker at the piano, was hugely embellished with terrific lighting by Durban’s Tina le Roux – who gets my nod for the best lighting on a stage this year. Tina’s inspired lighting almost became a supporting character in Lenny, Andrew, Steve and Me, which I first saw in small-scale form at Durban’s Rhumbelow Theatre in Umbilo, then on a larger scale at Johannesburg’s Pieter Toerien Theatre.

A Johannesburg visit also led to me enjoying my second favourite musical of the year: the excellent, super-sharp, touring Aunty Merle the Musical. It is a joyous romp which I attended with few expectations, but which blew me away with its fine performances (most notably by Marc Lottering as Merle), constant hilarity and catchy songs. The show, which originated in Cape Town, has already spawned a hit sequel, Aunty Merle, It’s a Girl, which I can’t wait to see.

Other outstanding musicals this year included the touring Into the Woods; the world touring production of Chicago (with the luminous duo of Samantha Peo and Carmen Pretorius as Velma and Roxy); the slick and inventive andCO production of Seussical at Gold Reef City over the festive season; and a handsome production of South Pacific by Cape Town’s G&S, a well-established community theatre organisation.

Also memorable were KickstArt’s current original panto Alice in Wonderland; the touring Sinatra and Me, starring the excellent Richard Shelton; and Here’s to You, a handsome, stylised salute to the music of Simon and Garfunkel that was staged in Johannesburg and Cape Town, with such success that a revival is planned in January. I’ll be there to see it again!

Georgina Mabbett-Kelly in KickstArt’s Alice in Wonderland.

Worth mention is the delightful treat that was the production, Curtain Up!, by Durban’s Young Performers’ Project, which I so enjoyed I saw it twice. A valuable initiative, this project annually selects high school pupils to be moulded by theatre professionals to present a musical. Long may it thrive!

On the dance front, the touring Burn the Floor and Durban’s longest running show, Shall We Dance, lived up to great expectations, while a big highlight of the year came more recently with the Cape Town City Ballet presenting the glittering A Christmas Carol: The Story of Scrooge at a packed Playhouse in Durban, before a longer season in the Mother City. It was magical.

Also a big treat and a visual delight was Peter Pan on Ice, by Russia’s Imperial Ice Stars, presented at the Teatro in Johannesburg over the festive season.

My favourites among 2019 supper theatre shows staged in Durban include Kerry Hiles’s award-winning tribute to Judy Garland, the excellent A Star is Born; and a sophisticated cabaret, The Carpenters, that was staged in February by the crack trio of Samantha Solomon, Shylo Pereira and Evan Roberts. Family Therapy, the loopy festive season choice at the Kloof Rhumblow Theatre, teaming Lisa Bobbert and Aaron McIlroy, was also a big winner!

Best of the year, though, was Non-Specific, the finest show to date from The Trolley Dollies, the towering, singing trio in drag that performs at the plush, must-visit Gate 69 in Cape Town. Non-Specific had the performers as zealous, naughty and as amusing as one would expect, but they also showed their vulnerability as they slid from stilettos into slippers to peel away their glamorous disguises. They got to accentuate the grey among the glitter in their lives as gay men and drag queens, and it added a new dimension to Non-Specific.

The Trolley Dollies in Non-Specific at Cape Town’s must-visit Gate 69.

A cut above the rest among the many showband tributes on offer in Durban this year were, way out front, Rhythm of the Night and Smash Hit Radio at the Barnyard Theatre.

Hollywood Hits was the best show at Durban’s Rockwood Theatre this year, while also great value were The Reals band’s three different Rhumbelow Theatre shows paying tribute to The Traveling Wilburys, Neil Diamond and various rock guitar legends. The Reals’ fun festive season lucky dip, Silly Season Shutdown, a mesh of novelty songs, pop and rock, was also a goodie.

An exciting relative-newcomer on the Durban theatre scene in 2019 was Tanner Wareham, who gets my vote for Newcomer of the Year. Blessed with a captivating voice and also a multi-skilled musician, his debut theatrical show, a Bob Dylan tribute at the Rhumbelow Theatre, made for memorable supper theatre. I look forward to his second show, a salute to reggae greats, scheduled for the Rhumbelow Theatre circuit early in the new year.

Speaking of Durban’s Rhumbelow Theatre franchise, hearty back-slaps, once again, for the group’s hard-working manager, Roland Stansell, for keeping shows playing there regularly, in spite of very hard times. He presented some interesting fare besides a steady flow of fun showband entertainment.

Highlights, ion no particular order, included Roxmouth’s Lenny, Andrew, Steve and Me; Hiles’s A Star is Born, Godfrey Johnson’s outstanding Vaslav, a tribute to dancer Nijinsky; Johnson and Nicholas McDiarmid’s novel Pianomania; drag icon Lilly Slaptsilli’s lip-sync hit, Shenanigans, and her I’m Gagging standup comedy treat; as well as Shika Budhoo’s Shikaland and a variety of shows for children.

Cara Roberts in the wonderful The King of Broken Things.

On the drama front, there were some great offerings, my favourite being a long-acclaimed Durban production, Michael Broderick-Taylor’s mesmerising and poignant The King of Broken Things, performed by Cara Roberts. I had missed it on the festival circuit last year, so was delighted when it had a short run at Durban’s Seabrooke’s Theatre in April.

It is a fascinating, 50-minute piece which, via careful direction, genius use of props and an increasingly fascinating performance by Roberts as a troubled young boy, goes on to explain that while words may in fact carry weight – which the boy sets out to demonstrate physically – nothing broken cannot be fixed. Don’t miss it if it comes around again!

My next favourite dramas of the year were Equus and Gertrude Stein and a Companion, with the wonderful The Snow Goose hot on their heels. I saw all three productions in Johannesburg.

Captivating, superbly acted, deftly directed and also very effectively lit by Fred Abrahamse, the Pieter Toerien Theatre production of Peter Shaffer’s haunting and harrowing Equus, offered rich rewards in its tale of a teenager under the eye of a psychiatrist after blinding horses. Sven Ruygrok, as troubled teenager Alan Strang, was particularly strong.

Sven Ruygrok as tormented teen Alan Strang in Equus.

The evocative and witty Gertrude Stein and a Companion, at Daphne Kuhn’s charming Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, was a master class in exemplary acting, both Shirley Johnston, as modernist writer and poet Stein, and Lynita Crofford, as Stein’s longtime companion Alice B Toklas, excelling.

As for The Snow Goose, based on the Paul Gallico book… this is another show I have continually missed over the years and which I finally got to see this year at Pieter Toerien’s tiny Studio theatre in Johannesburg.

What a treat – I loved every minute of this wonderful play about the war-time friendship of a young girl and an enigmatic man who lives in a lighthouse. Clever use of masks and props, and the versatility and energy of performers James Cairns and Taryn Bennett, under the direction of Jenine Collocott, made this a massive treat!

Other drama standouts, for me, were KickstArt’s Private Lives and Charlotte’s Web, the legendary Pieter-Dirk Uys’s #HeTwo and the Johannesburg production of Agatha Christie’s creaky, but fun, whodunnit, The Mousetrap.

Ian von Memerty and Gino Fabbri in Common and Class.

Disappointments this year? I was let down a lot by Ian von Memerty and Gino Fabbri’s overly crazy and often painfully corny Common and Class. I was also disappointed that, contrary to the English poster and press releases, there was no indication until curtain-up that award-winning Clinton Marius’s new English play, Bigly Yuge, had been radically reworked and put into Zulu for its Playhouse festive season run. Even the playwright expressed surprise!

Also a big disappointment was the Sibaya Casino’s iZulu Theatre opening night performance, in April, of Piano Man: The Billy Joel Show.  Singer-pianist Steven Michael, from Australia, was full of flu but ploughed on. Frankly, he would have done himself and the audience a much bigger favour had he simply apologised and gone to bed.

Also among downers this year was the July passing of legendary South African musician Johnny Clegg, as well as the deaths of veteran actress Nomhle Nkonyeni and Isidingo star and stage performer Andile Gumbi. Doris Day, Rip Torn, director John Singleton, Tim Conway, Peggy Lipton and Luke Perry also passed away this year.,

Here’s to great theatre-going in 2020. See you in the foyer!

A scene from Chicago which was staged in Cape Town and Johannesburg as part of a global tour.

2 thoughts on “SA theatre – 2019 in review

  1. Thanks for this, Billy, I always enjoy your feedback. Although I hate being reminded how many excellent shows only ‘do’ Jo’burg and Cape Town, and pass us by in Durban. Our own fault perhaps? Durbanites are notoriously slow about getting themselves to shows, so maybe we are just not a good financial risk? I _was_ lucky enough so see /Kinky Boots/ in New York, but I’d go again like a shot if it came to Durban. And I suppose we must be grateful for what we do have: the fabulous KickstArt, occasional visits by the divine Jonathan, and great entertainment at the Rhumbelow, thanks to the hard-working Roland.

    Thank you for keeping us up to date with your regular news and reviews. Keep them coming. I wish you a jolly and blessed Christmas, and lots of good entertainment in 2020.

    Kindest regards,

    Sally Stretch


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