STAGE: Once Upon a Tune – Rhumbelow Theatre, Umbilo, Durban
REVIEW BY BILLY SUTER
DURBAN actor, director, producer and playwright Steven Stead has long wanted to perform his own intimate, sophisticated cabaret. He has always shelved the idea, though, because of his having been so busy with his and partner Greg King’s award-winning KickstArt theatre company.
However, with countless big-show cancellations globally in these stressful times of Covid-19 chaos, including the necessary scrapping of KickstArt’s grand annual pantomime, Stead felt there was no better time than the present to realise his dream – in a small theatre where all Covid-19 safety and social distancing protocols are in place. So yay for that!
Once Upon a Tune is an elegantly informal, nicely paced, entertainment in which Stead, charming and in good voice, is superbly accompanied by versatile pianist and musical director Evan Roberts. They perform on a small stage that is beautifully lit, with her customary flair, by Tina le Roux, whose changing colours sometimes extend to the ceiling of the front of the auditorium.
The cabaret marks not only Stead’s first solo production but also his first time entertaining at the Rhumbelow Theatre, a venue he has long used to rehearse many of KickStart’s successes, among them Annie and Sweeney Todd.
Arriving on stage to sit on a bar stool alongside Roberts at the baby grand, Stead sports a trim beard and curls longer than they have been in recent years. He remains dressed in black throughout the show.
He opens with a gentle rendition of Try to Remember, the hit song about nostalgia from the musical comedy The Fantasticks. It perfectly signposts the theme of Once Upon a Tune which Stead has conceived as both a reflection on his life journey and career as well as a salute to songs which, special and/or influential to him, showcase the power and glory of good story-telling. His fine acting background, of course, greatly embellishes on that theme.
What follows is a mixed bag of songs, many of them familiar and some of them not, that sketch vivid vignettes, conjure memories and, by turns, touch the heart, tickle the funnybone or simply raise a smile.
Stead goes through the full gamut of emotions, veering from the high camp, wit and speedy deliveries of four Noel Coward classics, to softer and more intense moments, none quite as moving as a beautifully arranged, slower-than-usual version of Laurika Rauch’s haunting Kinders van die Wind. It perfectly closes the show.
A slow, melancholic arrangement of The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby is another standout moment, along with a fine delivery of How to Handle a Woman, which Stead first performed with great aplomb as King Arthur in KickstArt’s superb production of Camelot.
Also in this show, performed over two acts, are Jacques Brel favourites, two songs associated with Chris de Burgh, Come On, Come On (a dramatic song associated with Betty Buckley) and numbers from Barnum, The Rink and the Stephen Sondheim classics Into the Woods and Follies.
Once Upon a Tune is well worth seeing! The show, featuring sound by Jason Bird, has a limited engagement at the Rhumbelow Theatre, with final performances at 7.30pm today (December 12), 2pm tomorrow (December 13), 7.30pm on Tuesday (December 15) and 6pm on Wednesday (December 16). Tickets cost R160 (R140 for pensioners) and booking is at Computicket or by phoning Roland Stansell at 082 499 8636.