BY BILLY SUTER
ONE of the most prolific of South African independent theatre companies, the Johannesburg-based VR Theatrical, with hard-working Jaco van Rensburg as executive producer, turned out a slew of successful stage productions last year – and is planning a fine variety of shows this year.
Among shows on the 2020 schedule are two plays by Paul Slabolepszy (one a classic; the other new); a musical salute to the Sherman Brothers, who wrote songs for Disney movies; a new version of Alice in Wonderland; a National Arts Festival run of a play the company commissioned in 2019 from Ashleigh Harvey; and a revival of the 2019 hit, Here’s To You: The Simon and Garfunkel Songbook.
Good news is that the imaginative tribute to the music of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel is to be staged at Durban’s Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, marking VR Theatrical’s debut in the city. It will run there from March 19 to 29, after a January 31 to March 8 season at the Pieter Toerien Theatre at Montecasino in Johannesburg.
Featuring a cast of eight who sing and play various instruments, the show offers freshly arranged renditions of more than 20 Simon and Garfunkel hits. Under the musical direction of Wessel Odendaal, it features Josh Ansley on guitar with Ashleigh Butcher on banjo/guitar/ukelele, Daniel Geddes on keyboards, Hanna So on piano/violin/cello, Justin Swartz on guitar/vocal percussion, Phindile Dube on percussion and Sanli Jooste on cello.
My full review, from the original run in Johannesburg last year, is available by clicking here: https://wp.me/p8dL0W-4FG
Van Rensburg’s company will be making its first visit to Durban with this production, but Van Rensburg is not new to the city, having last year directed the fine youth musical, Curtain Up!, for the Young Performers’ Project, at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre.
“Here’s to You: The Simon and Garfunkel Songbook seemed to have hit the sweet spot last year in Joburg and Cape Town. This year we have decided to bring it back, but extend its playing period by including two venues we have never played before – the lovely Sneddon in Durban and the newly renovated Ettienne Rousseau Theatre in Sasolburg,” says Van Rensburg.
“We find this truly exciting as we can employ artists for a longer period of time and give the production we created more life and let it be seen by more people.
“I always struggle with the concept of creating a piece of theatre and then having to let go of it after a couple of weeks’ run! It takes us about a year of planning to get a production like Here’s To You on the boards.
“We have to contract directors and design teams who spend hours working out all the finer details of the look-and-feel. We audition actors/musicians, we work with various arrangers to get the music ready, we book venues, organise transportation and accommodation and, before you know it, it’s all over! Hence our excitement around sharing this production with a wider audience.”
Van Rensburg says his company has a “huge responsibility” to create theatre for younger audiences, “to introduce them to the magical world of live theatre”.
“In the past years we have presented adaptations of Peter and The Wolf, The Little Prince and an original children’s production, Tiny The Tokoloshe and Other African Tales. This year we hope to awake the imaginations of younger theatre goers with our adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.”
The production will be directed by Néka da Costa, drama lecturer at Wits, and will include music and a lot of creative story-telling tricks, Van Rensburg adds. The show will run at Johannesburg’s Pieter Toerien Studio Theatre, Montecasino, from February 22 until March 2.
VR Theatrical has established itself as a production house that produces musicals on a regular basis, but this year is proud to also be presenting two plays written by one of South Africa’s prolific playwrights, Paul Slabolepszy.
The first is a revival of Slabopeszy’s highly acclaimed Suddenly the Storm, with an Naledi Award-winning set design by Durban’s Greg King. It stars the original cast: Slabolepszy, Renate Stuurman and Charmaine Weir-Smith.
This will be on the boards at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, from March 12 to 29 before heading to Cape Town’s Theatre on the Bay later in the year.
“Paul’s newest play, Bitter Winter, will premiere at Pieter Toerien’s Studio Theatre on March 16 and run until May 2. Paul wrote the play a while ago, but it has never been produced. We are honoured to be working with him and director Bobby Heaney on bringing this play to life,” says Van Rensburg.
The play is said to be a tender, heart-warming tale that takes the audience along the rocky road that so many artists find themselves compelled to travel. It pays homage to the dreamers and storytellers that entertain and enlighten us on stage, screen and television.
A part in a film called Six Guns at Sesriem is hardly the prize a “classical” actor in his mid-70s might aspire to, but jobless Jean-Louis Lourens has no choice. As he anxiously awaits the arrival of the American movie director at a casting session, he meets up-and-coming TV star, Prosper Mangane, whose youth and adventurous spirit gives the old thespian a whole new perspective on the fascinating, unforgiving, profession both of them share.
With casting director, Felicia Williams, providing infrequent updates on the movie director’s progress through Customs at OR Tambo Airport, the two actors move from frosty first meeting to unlikely ‘comrades in arms’ over the 80 or so minutes they spend together.
VR Theatrical commissioned a new play last year, The Dead Tinder Society, written by actress Ashleigh Harvey.
“She did an exceptional job and under the directorship of Lesedi Job, together, they brought this hilarious dating comedy to life. The production was a smash when we presented it last year at Pieter Toerien’s Studio Theatre and we decided to give it another run and to take it to the National Arts Festival later this year. The production will be on stage in Joburg from May 28 until June 28.”
The company’s musical offering for the second half of 2020 is a British revue, A Spoonful of Sherman, a celebration of the Sherman brothers, who wrote songs for such Disney classics as Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Winnie the Pooh and other movies.
This production will be directed and choreographed by Shelley Lothian with musical direction by Wessel Odendaal. It will at Cape Town’s Theatre on the Bay in August and at Montecasino, Johannesburg, in September.
Meanwhile, note that the Teatro at Montecasino in Johannesburg will feature two performances (only) by internationally acclaimed New York singer, actress and impressionist, Christina Bianco at 3pm and 8pm on Saturday, April 11.
She will arrive fresh from playing the lead role of Fanny Brice to critical acclaim in the first production of Funny Girl in Paris.
Me, Myself & Everyone Else is the title of her new solo show, a highly entertaining mix of great songs, musical comedy and impressions of pop culture personalities and iconic vocalists such as Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton and Britney Spears. Tickets are on sale now at Computicket or www.montecasino.co.za
Popular local singer, actor and award-winning musical theatre performer, Craig Urbani, currently on stage at The Teatro playing the leading role of Dr Frank N Furter in The Rocky Horror Show, joins Bianco as a special guest. Multi award-winning arranger and music director, Bryan Schimmel. will conduct the on-stage, nine-piece band featuring top South African musicians.
Dubbed “the girl of a thousand voices”, Christina has performed on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Queen Latifah Show and The Today Show in the US, and The Paul O’Grady Show, This Morning and The Imitation Game in the UK.
A two-time Drama Desk Award nominee, Bianco has performed her critically acclaimed concerts to sold-out crowds in New York City and across the US. In the UK, she’s enjoyed extended runs headlining at London’s Hippodrome, Royal Albert Hall’s Elgar Room, The Charing Cross Theatre and at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival.