By BRUCE DENNILL
The Cradle Will Rock / Directed by Elizma Badenhorst / Auto & General Theatre On The Square / Sandton, Johannesburg
Perception: college-level performers should be given material appropriate to their experience to allow them to find their feet without too much pressure, building their confidence and competence so that they can one day be good enough to head into the professional acting world.
Reality (in this Oakfields College Faculty of Dance and Musical Theatre production, at any rate): give talented youngsters a complex, dense piece with a though-provoking rather than glamorous theme, and then equip them with enough discipline and focus to hit every mark in an almost entirely sung-through script.
Director Elizma Badenhorst and musical director Wessel Odendaal must take a huge chunk of the credit. The former takes Marc Blitzstein’s 1930s story, written during and reacting to a long period of economic depression in the US, and moulds the potentially gloomy subject matter into something with protracted pace, populated with passionate performers. There is obvious steel involved – this cast performs with more focus and discipline than many actors twice their average age – but there is also energy, excitement and humour as the players indulge wholeheartedly in the story and, as importantly, the allegorical aspect of the piece.
Odendaal is on stage the entire time, playing the piano and providing the tempo for the full 90 minutes. He and his piano are shunted around the stage occasionally to stand in for different parts of the set, but he hardly stops playing – his stamina as as impressive as his virtuosity.
Of the cast, there are notable individual and collective – the Liberty Committee functions more or less as a unit – performances. Nadine Grobbelaar, as Moll, shows off a voice that will surely be heard in a number of lead roles in the coming years. Laura-Lee Pitout, as Dauber; Jonathan Raath (blessed with a remarkably expressive face) as Yasha; Alyssa Harrison as Dr Specialist and Mikhail Swart as Larry Foreman are also excellent.
The Cradle Will Rock is not the easiest show to watch – in some ways, it’s like seeing a newspaper front page come to life – but this production highlights its strong points (catchy recurring melody lines, subtle lashings of wit) and presents the rest with such technical panache that the relative obliqueness of the narrative hardly matters.
South Africa’s already burgeoning musical theatre scene is assured of another injection of wonderful expertise.