By BRUCE DENNILL
Premiering last year at Redfest (and then called Love Stage) with a trio of singers and a single narrative woven between the songs, Loving You: Songs From The Musicals now has new singers – Musanete Sakupwanya and Lance Maron – joining returning vocalists Sharon Spiegel-Wagner, who conceived the show, and Lorri Strauss.
It’s essentially a new show, with voiceovers still included to help expand on the theme of different aspects of love and relationships, but with those excerpts now coming from multiple commentators and perspectives, edited to support the updated structure of the piece. That vision is roughly built around seasons as a metaphor for the unfolding and developing of love between two people – spring for the first flush; summer for the peak season stuff; autumn for the beginning of doubts and melancholy; and winter where reality (and all of its possible brutality) begins to intrude. The distinctions between these segments – as in life – are not always clear, and while the “seasons” are often filled out with medleys of songs that share a theme, there are also a number of standalone compositions that colour in the multi-faceted fabric of both the motif and the show itself.
The four-singer format allows for a great range of interesting partnerships that help vary the dynamics of the music – duets (two girls, two guys, girl-guy); all four singing in harmony, or blending different simultaneous solos into each other in mind-meltingly complex arrangements that show off the performers’ fierce focus; and, of course, solos to showcase four different but uniformly excellent voices.
At the piano, director and arranger Drew Bakker maintains a high-energy free-flow of all the notes the composers originally put into their work and often a great deal more as part of new and fascinating interpretations in terms of melody lines, rhythm, pace and the amalgamation of songs that listeners might not expect to work as well as they do in unison. Spare a thought for the poor sustain pedal on his piano, though – Bakker is a towering figure, and his playing style involves playing that pedal almost as a drummer would a kick drum. It has something of the same effect, too, neatly marking time as his fingers fly over the keys.
The repertoire for this show is low on clichés and high on what will, certainly for South African audiences, be new discoveries, sourced as they are from musicals that have not been staged locally. It’s not a formula for populists, and that is in no way a negative. Far from being distracting, this allows for the fostering of a sense of discovery for newcomers to the music and a sense of enhanced appreciation for audience members who have been lucky enough to take in the shows concerned elsewhere, or kept themselves up to date with emerging modern musicals.
A medley of If I Could Tell Her and Only Us from Dear Evan Hansen, performed by Spiegel-Wagner and Maron, is an early highlight; and a combination of Ten Minutes Ago from Cinderella and The Next Five Minutes from The Last Five Years, this time from Maron and Strauss, is equally good. The full ensemble does wonderful things to There’s A Fine Fine Line from Avenue Q (which did do very good business locally), and the apex of the evening is arguably the Webber Love Trio. This arrangement involves all the singers and puts parts of Love Changes Everything, Unexpected Song and I Don’t Know How To Love Him, first as a more or less traditional medley and then as a compelling knife-edge of scattershot phrases – different melodies, words (and possibly keys?) – that all blends perfectly, but only because the chops of the musicians involved are such that they can come in precisely on pitch and tempo, even when everyone else is doing something markedly different at the time. If you have any understanding of the complexity of what is involved, you’ll find yourself holding your breath until it’s over – which explains the explosion of enthusiasm at the end of the rendition.
Everyone sings brilliantly – Strauss a clear, strong mezzo-soprano; Maron (wonderful to see on stage again) a high tenor fit for a leading role; Sakupwanya showing off a particularly rich, resonant timbre across a wide range; and Spiegel-Wagner with incredible versatility, an enormous range and luxuriant tone in every area.
Two of the solo standouts are Spiegel-Wagner singing Heart Of Stone from Six, definitely one of the songs from the “winter” stage of love (“You say we’re perfect, a perfect family, you hold us close for the world to see…But I know, without my son, your love could disappear…), sung with tangible heartache; and Sakupwanya’s performance of I’ll Cover You (Reprise) from Rent, which allows him to showcase every aspect of his magnificent voice over a heart-swelling lyric.
A costume change two-thirds of the way through adds glamour and drama, but it is the music – and how effortlessly immense technical difficulty is translated into sounds that please, entertain and sometimes outright thrill, that carry the piece, making it more than simply an excellent option to get to with someone you love (the week of Valentine’s Day is part of the run), though it is certainly that as well.