By BRUCE DENNILL
Jonathan Roxmouth: Lenny Andrew Steve And Me / Accompanied by Rowan Bakker / Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg
Between stints in the title role of the international touring production of Phantom Of The Opera, Jonathan Roxmouth has written a new one-man (ish; Rowen Bakker accompanies on piano) show that is part showcase for the music of three of the best-known names in musical theatre – Leonard Bernstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim – and part witty, confident, no-fourth-wall audience educational regarding the structure of, intent behind and importance of musicals.
The piece is presented with wonderful imagination and style. If Roxmouth is the lead (and occasionally the secondary couple) and Bakker’s impeccable playing is the orchestra, the lighting – by Tina Le Roux – is the ensemble, half of the choreography and all of the set (beyond a trio of elegant wooden bar stools). Her spotlights cheekily refuse to follow Roxmouth to his mark; colours change to accentuate moods; and movement is created to fill the space behind the solo performer. It’s not often that the lighting is as noticeably important to the presentation of a piece as it is here, and Le Roux’s work deserves recognition.
Early on, Roxmouth introduces a mechanism that proves useful and effective in keeping his audience on track. The aforementioned bar stools are spread out across the stage, each as a stand-in for one of the composers whose work is being celebrated. Then, as Roxmouth introduces a composition by one of the icons he’s acclaiming, a spot highlights the stool representing Lenny, Andrew or Steve, helping the audience anticipate, if not the songs themselves, then certainly the approach and creative traits of the particular man behind the music in each case. This is perhaps most valuable in the medleys combining a song from each composer, as all Roxmouth needs to do is take a few steps one way or the other as he’s singing to take the audience into a new but complimentary melodic realm.
This is not a greatest hits show, and it is made clear that this was never the intent. Rather, for onlookers who are unlikely to have the sort of experience of and knowledge about musicals that Roxmouth can offer, it is a platform on which to be educated as much as entertained. This is not to say that any of the content is forced on the audience (though Roxmouth occasionally has a great time hamming up a persona that refers to the show, tongue-in-cheek, as a lecture). Instead, if you are willing to invest in the angle dreamed up for this script, and the perspectives of a performer who has repeatedly proved his chops at the highest level, this is a challenging but hugely satisfying journey through some sublime music, its history and its meaning. If you believed you were a major fan of musicals going in, you may leave the theatre understanding that you have a lot of work yet to do.
There is a slight bias (or it feels like it, anyway) towards the work of Sondheim – he was the lyricist for Bernstein’s melodies in West Side Story, so he already had that head start – and it’s understandable that a singer with Roxmouth’s capabilities would relish the challenge the composer’s sometimes fiendishly complex writing presents. There are occasional mumblings in the theatre about expecting more of Lloyd-Webber’s showstoppers in the line-up (there are sufficient; don’t fret, folks), but if the proof is in the pudding, this more sophisticated dish is infinitely more powerful than some glorified karaoke session could ever have been.
Roxmouth’s voice has, improbably, improved by an appreciable measure – the product of a year as the Phantom, singing with a live orchestra and its associated resonance in the pit in front of him. That extra tone and control, integrated with some brilliantly realised new arrangements of the material – a perhaps under-appreciated additional facet of the piece for those who were already not overly familiar with some of the songs. But these patterns and dynamics are informed by technically dazzling skills on the part of both Roxmouth and Bakker and, appreciated alongside the knowing, mildly mordant humour that is one of the singer’s trademarks they make for enthralling entertainment.