By BRUCE DENNILL
Here’s To You: The Simon & Garfunkel Songbook / Musical direction by Wessel Odendaal / Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg
The timeless music of Paul Simon (in a solo capacity) and Simon & Garfunkel both deserves and can withstand as many tributes as other artists are willing to give it, and this new production gives a fresh spin to both standards and relatively obscure compositions.
There are some interesting choices in terms of the way the show is put together. The set and costumes suggest an environment in which the expectation would be the playing of country music rather than the elegant folk-pop or stripped-down traditional songs Simon and Garfunkel made so memorable. Excellent lighting design means the environment would make a striking setting for an MTV Unplugged-style performance, but this production involves a good deal more choreography, with the eight-strong cast moving risers, wooden chests and an upright piano around to change the on-stage layout.
The bulk of songs on the setlist feature imaginative new arrangements by Bryan Schimmel, some of them relatively close to the originals, with just a few new phrasings and additions, while others are overhauled to a greater extent and thus likely more vulnerable to the vagaries of the personal musical tastes of individual audience members. These sometimes challenging re-imaginings, and the choice to include lesser-known tracks like I Do It For Your Love, Dangling Conversation and Overs in the setlist make for occasionally uneven pacing, even as they help maintain audience interest in what could otherwise be more or less straight copies of the originals.
Musical director Wessel Odendaal does an excellent job leading the way in terms of both musical distinction and energy, with each of the cast members – Josh Ansley, Ashleigh Butcher, Daniel Geddes, Hanna So, Phindile Dube, Justin Swartz and Hanli Jooste having moments to shine individually. Ansley’s voice has, like Art Garfunkel’s, a peculiar timbre, and his rendition of For Emily/Kathy’s Song is arguably the highlight of the show. So’s virtuoso playing of Odendaal’s clever Variations On S&G For Piano at the beginning of the second act is also exceptional.
Ignoring the fascinating history behind Simon & Garfunkel’s songs, their troubled relationship and the tumultuous period during which their greatest hits helped soundtrack an era is a conscious decision here – there’s a point in which the audience is told that “this will not be a history lesson; we want you to be a part of it” (which is where the piece’s title is derived from). There may have been a missed opportunity there, as one brief interlude in which Simon’s less than generous views on his and Garfunkel’s partnership are quoted causes quite a stir and including more of that backstory or snippets about the genesis of some of the big hits might have added to the experience.
Nonetheless, these new arrangements and the show as a whole are an appealing addition to the general Simon and Garfunkel repertoire.