Sunday, March 26, 2017

REVIEW: SOUSATZKA'S Talented Cast Can't Salvage Its Mess of a Book

With the help of a talented and devoted group of colleagues, a disgraced theatre impresario raises a small fortune and gambles it on a bid to redeem his reputation and his career: but, will his madly ambitious new musical be a hit?

SOUSATZKA's backstage story is crystal clear.  We know who the protagonist is, what his stakes are, and what he must do to achieve his goal.

Unfortunately for Mr. Drabinsky and his cohorts, the same can't be said of the production at the centre of the current chapter of his personal drama.

I saw SOUSATZKA twice: once in early previews and again on opening night.  I wanted to see how a team of world-class experts develop a new show for Broadway.

Apparently they move things around, make some cuts, and then add more scenes. 

In a program note insert provided opening night, we are told that Mr. Drabinsky's vision was to bring the Jewish diaspora of pre-WW II Eastern Europe and the South African anti-Apartheid activists in exile together in one show.

The source material onto which  Mr. Drabinsky's ambitious idea is fused is a 1962 novel,"Madame Sousatzka" by Bernice Rubens.  No South Africans appear in the novel, nor does the Holocaust.  The novel is about a compelling eccentric of a Russian piano teacher training a Jewish child prodigy who is torn between loyalty to his clingy mother and loyalty to his demanding music teacher.

So; an ambitious concept has been superimposed onto a novel about something else altogether, and then was turned into a musical, with a score written in several styles, by different composers. Richard Shire is credited with the music and Richard Maltby Jr, with the lyrics, and additional music created by Lebo M. who provided the South African music in LION KING.

There's a lot to admire about SOUSATZKA: a fascinating protagonist wonderfully played by a brilliant Broadway star, impassioned performances from a talented cast, beautiful choral singing, skillful ensemble work, a fine orchestra and some gorgeous costumes by Paul Tazewell.

Alas, the show's unwieldy book by Craig Lucas is a mess. It has more plot lines than a Brazilian soap opera and there's a musical number - or three - to go with every one. There's sixteen numbers in Act One and seventeen in Act Two. SOUSATZKA is cluttered, clunky, manipulative and way too long. The direction by Adrian Noble is uneven.

The show desperately needs forty-five minutes to an hour's worth of cuts. 

The prologue, set in South Africa is straight exposition, awkwardly staged. The Holocaust memorial scene at the end of Act One comes hard on the heels of a skin-crawling rape scene that feels exploitative. A Christmas sequence in Act Two is lovely to look at, but does nothing to move the plot forward. There's a scene in a punk club inexplicably underscored by a sugary pop dance tune. The DJ would have been beaten up by the crowd in the Queen St. West punk clubs of my misspent youth.

The current messy state of the show is no fault of the excellent cast.  As Madame Sousatzka, Victoria Clark shines like the Tony award-winning star she is.  She brings the ambitious, cultivated, troubled and eccentric Sousatzka fully to life, both emotionally and physically.  Her lush soprano voice fills the theatre.  She also has the best-written part in the show.

Her prized pupil, Themba, fares much less well. Jordan Barrow is a talented guy who unfortunately only gets to mope around the stage asking "Who am I" over and over, mime playing the piano (Why, why, why?  Why not have the actor playing the role of a musical prodigy actually play the piano?) and sing a couple of the worst songs in the show. "Gifted" is absolutely painful.

There's a side plot line where Themba has a white girlfriend who's a dancer. The story is underdeveloped, goes nowhere, and was responsible for one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the night. Virginia Preston, who is lovely, talented and deserving of a whole lot better executes a horribly choreographed solo in a two-piece red spandex hooker-wear outfit, straight out of an American Apparel ad. The only thing she's missing is a pole.

The habitues of Sousatzka's boarding house: punker and good-time girl Jenny (Sarah Jean Ford); Mr. Cordle, an osteopath and former actor (Nick Wyman); and Sousatzka's childhood friend, The Countess (Judy Kaye) are all well-drawn and delightful and charmingly played. Kaye and Clark's friendship and old history leads to one of the best musical numbers in the show, the moving "Let Go".

The whole South African plot-line is poorly developed, as are most of the South African characters. They are under-used, under-written and awkwardly integrated into the action of the show. It's a terrible waste of talent.

Naledi (Fuschia!)is an interesting character, played by a compelling actress with a gorgeous voice. We hardly get to see or hear her. Ryan Allen is terrific as Themba's imprisoned father Jabulani Khenketha. His singing is magnificent. The moments when he voices the redacted letters he's written from prison to his wife and his son are some of the best in the show. At the end, it's not even clear if he's alive or dead.

As Themba's activist mother, Xholiswa Khenketha, Montego Glover sings beautifully, but her poorly -written role leaves her stuck playing bitter, strident or clingy. Why the dinner after Themba's initial failed concert isn't at her house, when she was the one doing the cooking makes no sense whatsoever. She needs more nuance and more agency.

The philandering impresario Felix Manders (John Hillner) and his snobby wife (Christianne Tisdale) do fine comedic turns and actually move the plot forward. The Gilbert and Sullivan-influenced choral number in their salon is great fun, but the scene that follows goes on far for too long. 

"Rainbow Nation" is a moving anthem and should be Themba's encore. It feels like the natural place to end the show.

The denouement is the result of SOUSATZKA's most problematic plot line and left me wincing at its insensitivity. If you're raped at eighteen, and you have a baby as a result of that rape, are you really going to be unreservedly thrilled when your son with the rapist turns up at your door? It's a pretty big leap from that ugly truth to a teary reconciliation.

SOUSATZKA feels more like a vision of two solitudes than the creation of one rainbow nation: three, if you count the creators' tone-deafness to gender issues.

SOUSATZKA continues at the Elgin Theatre until April 9th, 2017.  For tickets or further information go to:  


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