Photo: Daniel Rutland Manners

It’s about time but perhaps that’s what was needed to do justice to such an iconic show. What King Kong proved again was how important it is to tell our own stories by our own people – and how an audience responds. If anyone dares tells me again that we don’t have enough musical theatre talent in this country, I will have my arguments and evidence handy.

The talent that pops on that stage is astounding. There’s not a voice or a step out of place and when counting the performers during the encore and realizing that there are only 22 to keep the whole thing going, it’s even more astonishing. It’s a glorious show from beginning to end and it is the detail in every second that adds a truly superior quality. Not only is it well done, it’s innovative and keeps unfolding one surprise after the other in the staging, the music, the performances, the sets and the costumes.

On entering the Mandela Theatre, I was surprised by the quite austere looking set, which appeared to be wood. I liked it but was slightly puzzled by the context. It was only with lighting that I realized it was corrugated iron, which reflected and displayed differently because of specific lighting. It’s a clever set, masterfully designed to change and offer different settings and allow the cast to pop on and off stage depending on the scene through different entrances and exits.

Photo: Daniel Rutland Manners

There’s an authenticity which is enhanced by the costumes that buy into the period; an understated, realistic portrayal of the time, which immediately transports one to that place. The synched waists, the collars, the billowing skirts for the women while the temptress is in a dress that fits like skin with two-toned black and white shoes for Lucky, the snappily-dressed gangster. And the way they move encapsulates the period and the place magnificently, with the explosive style of Gregory Maqoma blending the past with the present perfectly. It keeps the mood swinging throughout.

More than anything, though, it is the cast that completely overwhelms with their excellence, enthusiasm, and energy. From the leads to the ensemble, there’s a compelling urgency as they step onto the stage to unveil the story of a brilliant boxer on the brink of breaking through the barriers presented by his blackness to conquer the world. And while this plays at the height of apartheid, this reworked story embraces both the present and the past to bring all ages on board. It resonates as strongly in a world where #BlackLivesMatter still needs to be spelled out.

Andile Gumbi as King Kong. Picture: Jesse Kramer

There is substance to the story but with a score that holds many familiar and haunting songs from the past which have been emboldened by some additions by the gifted Charl-Johan Lingenvelder. This is a musical and we’re never allowed to stop that foot-tapping for long. It is so unmistakably South African with the Kwela, Marabi and Mbaqanga mixed through with some heart-stopping jazz. Even the ubiquitous Back of the Moon still has that unstoppable power only music achieves time after time.

It’s thrilling to watch for the performances, from Sne Dladla’s remarkable narrator Pop who seamlessly weaves the story for his young charges with their dreams of sporting greatness to the magnificence of Andile Gumbi who seems, physically and in song, born for the part of the majestic King Kong. It’s as if he towers above the rest, which immediately gives him a presence that’s hard to resist and as he falls before reaching dizzying heights, it breaks your heart. In contrast, the petite Nondumiso Tembe as his fickle girlfriend is the perfect Joyce, perhaps the most difficult part to play because of the Miriam Makeba memories. But she steps up, lets that gorgeous voice rip and claims the part – and as a reward, Joyce is the one who elicits the loudest audience groans because of her betrayal! Her distinct voice is offset by the honey-toned sounds of Lerato Mvelase (Petal) and Ntambo Rapatla (Miriam) that further embolden the lead group.

There’s also the gregarious Jack skilfully crafted by Tshamano Sebe and the wily Lucky played with slimy slickness by Sanda Shandu, as the gangster who wants his gal while humiliating the guy who won her heart. But money and power talks. It did then and does even more so today. With the ensemble underpinning the production in all areas and killing it in the dance, it’s a joy to watch.

Photo: Daniel Rutland Manners

If you like musicals – and there’s no doubt South Africans do – don’t miss this one. It’s one of the best and it’s homegrown. If you like shows with substance, it’s all there from the historic awe-inspiring beginnings of King Kong to everyone that participated in it then and in this remarkable revival. But most of all, the spectacular cast speak volumes. What they have achieved is phenomenal and adds immeasurably to the richness of our theatre landscape – and will hopefully in the future make our musicals more representative.

Gauteng audiences missed out on the spellbinding Dreamgirls a few years back. Don’t allow it to happen again.

King Kong is playing in the Mandela Theatre at the Joburg Theatre until October 8, 2017, Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8 pm with a 3 pm matinee performance on Saturdays and a 2 pm matinee performance on Sundays. King Kong returns to Cape Town at the Fugard Theatre from December 12, 2017, for the South African holiday season.


This article was first published in the Huffington Post South Africa on 22/09/2017 on the blog De Beer Necessities on 19/09/2017. Repostsed with permission

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.

This post was written by Diane de Beer.

The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.