Theatre Review: Broadway On Melle – Scholars Of Song, Or Concordant Class

September 21, 2021

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Broadway On Melle / Directed by Tshepo Ncokoane and Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri / The Dome@NSA, National School of the Arts, Braamfontein


COVID-19 has been brutal for established artists, with work cancelled or postponed, audiences restricted and venues shuttered. For the next generation of artists, though – the singers, actors, dancers and musicians training to deliver a fresh wave of talent and inspiration to fans of the performance arts – the pandemic could have shattered dreams before they were realised in any form.

For this reason, the vision and commitment required to maintain momentum in terms of creating new work and platforms on which to stage it deserves even greater commendation than before. And as discussed elsewhere on this site, Johannesburg’s National School of the Arts (NSA) has already, by partnering with Splitbeam and others, created a new outdoor venue, The Dome@NSA, which allows theatre fans to watch shows in the open air (much safer in COVID terms) and gives the school’s students a stage for a showcase – an important early test of mettle for a would-be career performer.

Broadway On Melle is a revue show, a collection of a generous 22 numbers from shows as diverse as Pippin, The Addams Family, The Book Of Mormon, Dog Fight and Beetlejuice The Musical. The relative obscurity of some of those shows for South African audiences is arguably a good thing, as it removes the bias of knowing and loving a musical theatre standard and having that distract from the quality of how the piece is executed, which in this context, is so important. And, as enduringly wonderful as the blockbusters are, being introduced to exciting new or fringe work is lovely.

Great lighting and sound mean that the moments before curtain-up (theoretical; the Dome is open-fronted) revive that much-missed, soul-lifting moment when the band begins to play and the stage begins to darken, marking the beginning of the show. And here, the title of the opening ensemble piece, Magic To Do (from Pippin), seems incredibly appropriate – theatre, and musical theatre in particular, does cast a spell, and being on the receiving end once more is … enchanting.

An early solo highlight is Maita Mazhandu’s take on Sal Tlay Ka Siti from The Book Of Mormon, with the young singer making sure that the piece’s complex melange of satire, pathos and emotive melody is given its due. That particular song doesn’t have some of the scarier high notes of other entries in the programme, and pure top end delivery is one of the notable challenges during the production as a whole. This is fair enough, given that those are the details that set experienced professionals – with many years of training behind them – apart from each other (never mind these much younger performers). And it’s the sort of hurdle that a showcase is designed to provide a safe space for – encouraging up-and-comers to get, well, further up while still being rightly cheered for their general skill. Later in the running order, Ndumiso Buthelezi and Andiswa Booi distinguish themselves with standout solos.

The profound beauty of great writing for musicals is revealed again and again as the cast complete their songs and rotate to give others a chance, whether those songs are established favourites like At The Ballet (from A Chorus Line) or are revealed for the first time to rookie listeners, as may be the case with Pretty Funny (from Dog Fight). And as well as the industry- and relationship-related material in the lyrics of many such songs, there is also the occasional bit of spot-on social commentary – impossible to ignore, for instance, when watching strong all-rounders Gabriel Poulsen and Andile Mahlangu perform Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist from Avenue Q.

What is consistent throughout the show is the confidence of the young performers, from the tight, expressive, dependable band to soloists and ensemble singers. This must to some degree be attributed to the influence and guidance of directors Tshepo Ncokoane and Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, both hugely talented artists themselves and both able to switch from focused thoughtfulness to outrageous assurance in their own work. That a transferral of self-belief from professionals to newcomers is so evidently successful is one of the great strengths of Broadway On Melle.

Encouraging, entertaining and edifying.

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