By BRUCE DENNILL
African Pulse: Celebrating The Ndlovu Youth Choir / Directed by Matthew Counihan / Teatro, Montecasino, Fourways, Johannesburg
During one of the earlier reductions in the strictness of lockdown regulations, the Ndlovu Youth Choir staged a run of concerts at Emperors Palace, maintaining the momentum they’d gained in the wake of their high-profile run in the 2019 edition of America’s Got Talent. Those shows, and that work ethic – remember, these are mostly school-going teenagers, dealing with all of that complexity while also continuing their development as performers – underlined what spectacular talent is collected in this unit and just what the choir might be capable of, given the right support and appropriate platforms.
Some of that support has arrived in the form of Showtime Management (who have produced, among many other huge projects, Chicago, Stomp, Disney On Ice, Jersey Boys, Dreamgirls and concerts for everyone from Eminem and Li’l Wayne to Cat Stevens and Jason Mraz) and one of those platforms is the stage of the Teatro, buzzing and, yes, pulsing with a multi-level walkways and staircases; giant LED screens used to support various narratives and to complement the singers’ brightly-coloured costumes; and a huge lighting rig. Such a set-up requires considerable investment and, with only 250 of the theatre’s 1870 seats available under current COVID-19-related regulations, African Pulse could not be given a run without losing money.
What the show being launched in this format means, however, is that a considerable statement of intent has been made. This is a show designed to tour internationally, and the two performances on Saturday 1 May gave the team behind it – and the choir – a chance to make sure the concept works, gauge audience response and make notes on what final changes might improve the work.
So does it work? Emphatically – yes. One of the choir’s trademarks is an ability to make discipline and joy look like the same thing. This means that, even as you take in the uniform excellence of the singers’ voices and the power of the arrangements of both popular mainstream songs (a version of Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Homeless is particularly superb) and top-notch originals, it becomes impossible to ignore how immaculately drilled they are, seemingly incapable of making mistakes in their ensemble choreography. In other contexts, this could come across as clinical and perhaps lacking in soul, but here the opposite is true: everything on stage is a confirmation of a collective gift that is infectiously wonderful to witness. And packaged like this, with the infrastructure ready to go and a strategy in place to tour this production internationally, it feels – and this is not just the pandemic-enforced lack of theatre and live music over the last year speaking – like Showtime may have a potentially long-running hit on their hands. Here’s hoping the pandemic ends soon enough that this particular group of singers can enjoy the fruits of their hard work to the greatest possible extent.