I have seldom been as excited to see a musical as I was to see Calling Me Home at the Joburg Theatre last night. Not only because of the fabulous cast, but because it is the first truly South African musical since the glorious King Kong, and an ideal opportunity to show how much our creativity has grown.
There was a positive buzz of anticipation from the premiere audience, which halfway through the first act had subsided into impatience for the interval and a strong desire for libations to combat the boredom.
Song after song we were subjected to repetitive dirges in minor keys, devoid of any African rhythms or inflections, with not one up tempo song throughout. By the time Samantha Peo made her appearance, looking absolutely gorgeous, it became clear that not even her excellent delivery could turn this into a good song.
This is a musical in which vague African wars are fought without any reason, where Africans travel easily between this continent and a New York seemingly set in the depression era, with none of the vibrancy of the Big Apple, nor of the African continent.
I have seldom seen so much wasted talent on one stage. Musanette Sakupwanye is arguably South Africa’s top male jazz vocalist and surprises with a natural acting ability, unfortunately the songs he sings hardly display his prowess and range. And if you were hoping to see glimpses of Samantha Peo’s brilliance in musicals like Chicago you will be sorely disappointed. Zolani Mahola of Freshly Ground fame is completely wasted as Lindiwe, who has two songs in the first act and has little else to do for the rest of the show. Lynelle Kenned and Anthony Downing are seasoned pros who struggle to keep any momentum in the constant scene and set changes. Every song brings a set change. If only it brought some character development and humour. Newcomer Michael McMeeking will surely work again, despite this lukewarm entry into the industry.
There are no vibrant, up tempo group numbers to break the maudlin slow songs in minor keys. There are no light or humorous moments, a la Master of the House or Lovely Ladies from Les Miserables. There is no exploration of the rich African rhythms and harmonies, colours and textures that this continent provides. Why the director did not call in a few experienced colleagues for advice during the rehearsal process is a mystery. Anyone with musical theatre experience would surely have seen the glaring faults in this production and would have been able to suggest useful changes. But my suspicion is that director Magdalene Minnaar won’t be directing any more musicals in the near future.
Although it’s really positive that sponsorship was secured for a new and entirely South African musical, this was not the right musical. The creator, Alice Gillham, seems to have admirable credentials, but this show should not be part of them. A quick Google tells me that she has a Masters degree in Ethnomusicology. I would honestly never have guessed.
By Rebecca Swift