Theatre Review: More Than A Handful – Bitten By The Big Apple, Or The Keys To Success

April 10, 2022

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Bryan Schimmel: More Than A Handful / Directed by Alan Swerdlow / Theatre On The Square, Sandton, Johannesburg


The staged memoir of pianist, musical director, arranger and orchestrator Bryan Schimmel, More Than A Handful is an examination of alternating cycles of frustration and hope that ultimately sees its protagonist find both himself and success after a long period of not really understanding what the best version of either might look like.

Following a childhood dream of being a performer, Schimmel was pegged back early on by his stammer, an impediment he still has and which he still does – admirably – simply push past in order to prove himself in whatever new arena he’d like to explore. That includes, in this show, his debut as a solo performer, which will be no less inspiring for audience members believing their own challenges impossible to surmount even when considering that Schimmel has for so long achieved many of his goals in spite of others’ expectations when hearing him speak.

A large part of the piece is taken up by a look at the period he spent not quite achieving an ambition very close to his heart: becoming a full-time musical director on Broadway in New York. This is, of course, a dream held by many and accomplished by few – in both musical and theatrical terms, the city is the most competitive space on the planet. The narrative, written by Schimmel and director Alan Swerdlow (who also pops up as a character when the former discusses an early career highlight), unpacks Schimmel’s journey from the time he first realises what he’s let himself in for and what sacrifices will need to be made until his American journey is brought to an end by events beyond his control. This story involves much difficult, frank truth-telling, made easier to process for the audience by cleverly devised setpieces and illustrations (literally, in one sequence) that create a vivid and colourful picture of life in parts of the Big Apple that some may consider … over-ripe. Schimmel regularly breaks up his narration and movement with stints at a keyboard, showcasing the easy, fluid, authoritative playing style that has kept him in demand for so many South African productions. A re-imagined instrumental version of Jimmy Webb’s MacArthur Park is particularly memorable.

Denis Hutchinson’s set and lighting are characters in their own right, with details both in what is onstage throughout and in photographs added as Schimmel tells his story that cleverly support context and mood in ways that the audience may not fully understand, even as they appreciate it (such as the pattern of the tiles on the floor; closely recalling the décor in a number of New York buildings of a certain age).

For fans of or people associated, even peripherally, with the South African theatre industry, More Than A Handful is an insight (and one not often afforded) into the vexed mindset of an artist struggling to make it, reaching exciting heights and then needing to start again, and into the continuous hard work needed to overcome both personal and industry-related challenges in order to stay relevant in their particular role.

One potential issue for audience members who aren’t as familiar with local theatre is that some of Schimmel’s references – shows he was in, or other actors or musicians he collaborated with – will simply be names, holding little or no weight for people who weren’t there at the time Schimmel was. But even coming in cold, there is plenty to like here: while not a trained actor, Schimmel knows the stage inside out and there is no-one better qualified to tell his story – the lighter moments, the considerable darkness, the joy and the sadness, the comedy and the confusion, and through it all, a thread of magnificent music.

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