This musical about Nelson Mandela is a bumpy ride but proves ultimately endearing
The cliché that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter only really makes sense in a world of moral equivalence; we all know that a man like Nelson Mandela could only be a terrorist in the eyes of a villain. And of course, Dutch-governed South Africa, with its 44-year apartheid separating blacks and whites, was nothing if not villainous. “There were good people on both sides” is a sentence no current nor future leader of that country would dare to utter.
A musical of Mandela’s story is one of those ideas that sounds almost feasible on paper – an ordinary man facing the cruelty of a poisonous regime rising “from prison resident to president” – but it proves glib and simplistic in practice. The great bulk of the blame lies in the score and the lyrics; Jean-Pierre Hadida and Alicia Sebrien are credited with the latter and Hadida alone seems responsible for the score (what drove two French people to think they were qualified to tell this story is anyone’s guess). Oh, and the choreographer is Johan Nus, whose career highlights include Magical Dream at Planet Hollywood, Las Vegas.
The bio-musical is a pretty grim subcategory of the traditional musical, and it shares the same irritating qualities of the bio-pic: it tends to leap from incident to incident, hitting beat after predictable beat; it tends to flatten and simplify any nuances of personality in the pursuit of an easily digestible character arc; it tends to settle for the blandest and most shallow of readings about its subject. Madiba falls into every one of these traps, and yet there’s something endearing about it. Daggy and choppy and amateurish, but endearing nonetheless.
A large chunk of its charm comes from the cast, who give their all and deserve a far better production than the one they’ve been saddled with. Perci Moeketsi is rather subdued as the great man, more figurehead than vibrant presence, but he grows into the role and delivers a stirring rendition of ‘Invictus’, a fine song of patient resistance deep into the second act that recalls ‘The Impossible Dream’ from Man of La Mancha. Tim “Timomatic” Omaji makes a solid and soulful Sam Onotou, and Blake Erickson uses his fine tenor to powerful effect as the impossibly compromised Van Leden. Barry Conrad makes a convincing young lover as William Xulu.
But the production, if not the show itself, really belongs to the women. Madeline Perrone is passably sweet as the white love interest of William, but it’s Ruva Ngwenya as Winnie Mandela and Tarisai Vushe as Sandy Xulu who sink their claws into the songs, and fill out the paucity of their roles by the sheer magnetism of their voices. Dramatically, they are given almost nothing to do, and might have made better narrators than David Denis, who is barely in control of his part (on opening night he tripped over his lines).
The co-directors, one French (Pierre-Yves Duchesne) and one Australian (Dennis Watkins), are to blame for the creaking amateurism that cripples the first act in particular. While it’s hard to judge the calibre of Duchesne’s career from here, Watkins is mostly known for directing awards shows. This probably explains the inept blocking and flat dramatic tableaux, not to mention the lazy transitions. None of it is helped by Johan Nus’s rock eisteddfod choreography, nor the desultory set design by literally nobody – the program makes no mention of a designer. Even the costumes (Sabrina Gomis Vallée), which one could expect to be colourful and vibrant, fail to make an impression.
Musicals are notoriously difficult to write and produce; so many disparate and technically fiendish elements have to converge in perfect harmony for them to even remotely work. Madiba The Musical – with its adolescent approach to the politics of its subject matter, its confused and inarticulate score, and the tedious rhyming-couplet structure of its lyrics – doesn’t come close to working. And yet, as I mentioned earlier, there’s something endearing, and eventually rather poignant, about this effort. The cast, and most likely the entire creative team, display a kind of emotional purity that is almost courageous. As a celebration of Mandela, the world’s freedom fighter, it’s almost beautiful.