By BRUCE DENNILL
Aunty Merle The Musical / Directed by Lara Foot / The Mandela, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
For a comedian to base a full-length musical on one of the alter egos he dreamed up for his solo shows takes considerable – and this is appropriate given that the alter ego in question is a six foot-plus cross-dresser – balls. It’s one thing to wander offstage for a bit between stand-up sets and come back wearing a frock for a couple of skits. It’s quite another to make the character the pivot of a two-hour story featuring 22 original songs.
Marc Lottering has proved that this unlikely ambition is not only achievable but critically laudable, with the show having had three successful seasons in Cape Town before this venture upcountry. Lara Foot is one of the more respected directors in South Africa, and her sure hand on the helm here ensures that what could easily skate too close to cheesiness clips along at a good rate, generating steady giggles and the occasional guffaw.
Lottering’s Aunty Merle is the matriarch of a well to-do Coloured family in Belgravia Road in Athlone, Cape Town. Her daughter Abigail (Tracey-Lee Oliver) is newly engaged to Alan White (Paul du Toit, letting someone else wear the dress after his Hedwig & The Angry Inch exploits), a man whose surname describes his skin colour. Her son (Anzio September) is on a journey exploring his sexuality, and Abigail’s volatile ex, Denver (Loukmaan Adams) is back in town and wanting to reconnect with his old girlfriend.
The scene is set for romance, conflict, drama and humour. Lottering being both playwright and lyricist (the latter along with Tarryn Lamb) means that all of this plays out with a twinkle in the eye and a self-effacingly subversive tone from time to time, where a scenario that would otherwise have required pages and pages of script to unpack is knowingly glossed over with a quick line – between characters – to the effect of, “It’s a musical; we resolve things quickly.”
The piece features many strong singers, with Oliver, Du Toit and Adams all acclaimed singers, as is Gina Shmukler, who plays a smaller role as Alan’s mother and performs a very fine solo. Lottering’s own abilities in that area will surprise many, with his sung contributions much more than simple competence in holding a tune. It is his better-known aptitude for physical comedy that gets the piece’s most rousing responses, with his matching of cleverly complementary movements with animated conversations – or indeed, simple actions like descending a staircase – being reliably funny.
The eight-piece band that provides the entire soundtrack is permanently on stage, superb players all who add pace and atmosphere along with the melodies and rhythms of the songs.
The size of the Mandela stage does mean that there is a large chunk of open space that, though not quite dead space, is only ever used by characters appearing from behind the main set (the interior of Aunty Merle’s house), but that is likely more of a venue-specific challenge than a long-standing concern.
The specific South Africanisms that pepper the script make this a musical that will always do best locally, and it’s intentional shortage of exposition suggest it’s not even trying to do business against the big brands in musical theatre. Within that context, though, it’s a lovely piece of work – blithe and buoyant, but with themes worth thinking about.