Queen excess, diva delicious

Craig Urbani as Khashoggi and former Durban performer Londiwe Dhlomo as Killer Queen in We Will Rock You, the hit rock musical featuring 24 hits by rock band Queen.

……BILLY SUTER……

SO, WHAT do rock band Queen, opera diva Maria Callas and a long drive to Johannesburg this past weekend have in common? Well, nothing other than the fact that that city’s Montecasino is currently presenting separate shows respectively highlighting these diverse musical icons – and my partner and I hit the road to review them.

Was the six-hour-or-so trip from Durban worthwhile? Certainly! The two productions are poles apart, yet both are worth seeing for very different reasons.

We Will Rock You is a showy, grand, high-gloss, high-tech visual and aural spectacle, essentially expensive bubblegum for the eyes and ears. Master Class is a far more modest, more intimate, infinitely more cerebral treat – simply staged, without gimmicks and aimed at the more discerning theatregoer

The Ben Elton-penned We Will Rock You, a flashy jukebox musical with 24 Queen hits as a loose hanger for a sci-fi tale, is certainly Joburg’s hottest ticket right now. Saturday’s capacity matinee audience at the large Teatro theatre lapped it up, giving an enthusiastic standing ovation.

This, of course, is the musical that premiered in London in 2002, met with mostly poor reviews for a book by Ben Elton, then went on to become an audience favourite and the longest-running musical at the West End’s Dominion Theatre. When that original production closed on May 31, 2014, it was the 11th longest-running musical in West End history.

I saw that original London production and also the first South African production that visited Durban’s Playhouse in 2006, and can declare without any hesitation that the current revival, newly reimagined, redesigned and revitalised, runs rings around those earlier productions.

This new production, featuring a South African cast that has already toured to Manila, the Phillipines and Singapore, has a truly magnificent new design making very clever use of striking visuals on angular, digital screens. These elements, combined with terrific new costumes, almost make those earlier productions seem dated and cheap by comparison. Kudos for that!

The big problem remains Ben Elton’s script. It is not without moments of amusement, but remains as cringingly lame as ever as it unfolds an increasingly clunky tale set on a future Earth, called iPlanet.

Sandra Prinsloo as Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s Master Class.

This is a place where rock music, free thought and individuality have long become things of the past under the strict rule of internet giant Globalsoft, whose identikit heads of staff cruise about on illuminated hoverboards.

Slowly a number of diverse characters show they, er, want to break free … leading to the formation of a ragtag group of rather childish ‘Bohemians’. They rebel against the system and try to interpret young dreamer Galileo Figaro’s visions which lead to a quest to rediscover rock music. Yeah, told you it was lame.

Fortunately, a big plus of the new production is a strong cast with some wonderful vocal highs, standouts including fresh-faced Stuart Brown as all-in-white Galileo Figaro and Nicolette Fernandes as his feisty sidekick and eventual romantic interest, Scaramouche.

Also worth special mention are Craig Urbani as Globalsoft bigwig Khashoggi, Tiaan Rautenbach as a loveable Buddy and, my clear favourites, Danelle Cronje as sassy rebel Oz and former Durban performer Londiwe Dhlomo as a truly killer Killer Queen.

We Will Rock You is scheduled to run at the Teatro until April 16, with performances at 8pm Tuesdays to Fridays, 3pm and 8pm on Saturdays, and 2pm and 5pm on Sundays. Tickets range in price from R200 to R500. Book via http://www.showtime.co.za or http://www.ticketmaster.co.za

Terrence McNally’s fine play, Master Class, which continues at Montecasino’s Pieter Toerien Theatre until April 2, is alone worth seeing for a sterling, nuanced and moving performance by SA theatre royalty, Sandra Prinsloo, in the role of Maria Callas.

Directed by Magdalene Minnaar, this play takes the form of diva Callas giving a vocal master class at New York’s Juilliard School in 1971, at a time when she had not sung for six years.

Callas, via Prinsloo’s performance, is by turns blunt, harsh, forgetful and scathingly witty, sometimes explosive with emotion, as she shares thoughts, insights, memories and advice while working with a pianist and three vocal students – two sopranos and a tenor – as well as a stressed stage manager and us, the audience, her master class attendees.

Arias by Verdi, Puccini and Bellini are performed by the voice students, played by Brittany Smith, Judith Neilson and Tylor Lamani, all in good voice, while musical director José Dias plays the unflustered pianist whose name Callas constantly forgets.

Occasionally, Callas breaks from reality to nod at vanity and vulnerability, recalling vignettes of her past via scenes depicted with blurred, monochrome background film footage. She recalls her finest hours on some of the world’s grandest stages; her marriage to wealthy industrialist Meneghini; her highly publicised and ultimately heart-breaking affair with Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.

I have been fortunate to review the peerless Jana Cilliers and Durban’s wonderful Clare Mortimer in previous productions of Master Class over the years, and this new production, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Callas’s birth, is every bit as rewarding and memorable.

Master Class has already enjoyed a Cape Town season. Tickets for the Johannesburg season range in price from R180 to R280 via Webtickets.


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