Although it’s called Madiba the Musical, this production aimed at celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela, is more like an interesting hybrid. Certainly musical theatre, but not really a conventional Broadway musical, not really a musical documentary and not really a concert, it has elements of all three, as it alternates between staged scenes and tableau.
Performed with passion and commitment by a talented cast of triple-threat performers, Madiba the Musical focuses on the impact of apartheid in South Africa through a group of fictional characters whose lives were impacted during Mandela’s lifetime.
Mandela (Perci Moeketsi) is presented as a beatified figure. His history is annunciated by a charismatic narrator (David Denis) who delivers the salient historical facts in rap poetry while performing intricate hip hop moves.
As Mandela, Moeketsi is a well cast. He brings a quiet dignity to the role, has a more than passing physical resemblance to the man, particularly in the second half when his hair is greyed, and a commanding voice which he uses most effectively for Mandela’s final climactic monologue.
However the script never allows Mandela to be any more than a symbol, so that apart from historical dot points, the audience learns nothing about Mandela, the man. Similarly for Winnie Mandela, played by Ruva Ngwenya, who, despite her strong stage presence and excellent singing voice, is given little opportunity by the script to make much impact. What a show this might have been had the script explored the relationship between these two extraordinary characters rather than their political significance.
Instead humanity is reserved for the story of a young artist William Xulu, (played at this performance by Tarik Frimpong), who falls in love with Helena, (Madeline Perrone), the daughter of the embittered Police Chief, Peter Van Leden (Blake Erickson). William’s sister, Sandy Xulu, is in a relationship with Sam Onotou, (Tim Omaji), who, having been inspired by his imprisonment with Mandela, preaches his message. Through these characters the audience glimpse examples of apartheid, but their story is too clichéd and predictable to have much impact.
Unfortunately, the original French book and lyrics for Madiba the Musical seems to have lost something in translation for this Australian production, with often trite dialogue and lyrics, and songs and scenes reminiscent of other musicals, think Hamilton, Fiddler on the Roof and Les Miserables.
Indeed it comes as no surprise to learn that the composer, Jean-Pierre Hadida, had been an associate of Claude-Michel Schonberg, the composer of Les Miserables, because at least two of the songs, My Civilization and It’s Time Now To Forgive, bare striking similarity to songs from that musical.
Generally though the songs are attractive and tuneful, with the high points provided by the dancing in the ensemble scenes for which choreographer, Johan Nus has embraced a variety of dance styles to spectacular effect. There was also a magic moment at this performance when audience members joined in softly as the cast sang the South African National Anthem.
Throughout, the scenery and staging is direct and simple. Liberal use of images projected onto screens and scrims, and ubiquitous busy intelligent lighting, provides some spectacle. However the scenes in which actors are wheeled on and off stage on pre-set trucks often left the stage looking sparse and underdressed. The most effective scenes are the two-level prison sequences played behind scrims.
While never quite achieving its stated ambition of providing a powerful and uplifting celebration of Nelson Mandela, Madiba – The Musical at its best, offers a unique and sometimes exhilarating theatrical experience which shouldn’t be missed.
Madiba the Musical
Canberra Theatre Centre, London Circuit, Canberra
Performance: Saturday 24 November 2018
Season: 22 – 24 November 2018
Madiba the Musical will play Crown Theatre Perth: 2 – 12 January and the Adelaide Entertainment Centre Theatre: 17 – 20 January 2019. For more information, visit: www.madibamusical.com.au for details.
Image: Madiba the Musical – photo by Serge Thomann
Review: Bill Stephens OAM