By BRUCE DENNILL
The Greatest Love Of All: The Whitney Houston Show / Directed by Johnny Van Grinsven / The Mandela, Joburg Theatre
Tribute shows are often unfairly regarded as staged karaoke, which underplays the effort that goes into making some of them and the proficiency of the artists involved. This acknowledgement of the impact of Whitney Houston on popular music deserves a more thoughtful assessment than that.
Belinda Davids is a wonderful talent who, prior to investing heart and soul in The Greatest Love Of All, sometimes had her knack for recreating Houston’s sound – a near-impossibility for most vocalists – listed as a weakness, in the sense that it would make her too difficult to market as a unique act. The irony must be appreciated by Showtime Management, who have created this tribute, as well as a number of other shows focusing on the work of artists such as Elvis, The Beatles and Queen.
But even the remarkable capacity of Davids to handle the complexities of Houston’s many hits – written by industry leaders for a once in a generation voice, so always in challenging keys and usually arranged in such a way as to make the most of the high end sessioneers available to them – is not a guarantee of success.
What makes this show sustainably good, rather than just a novelty that wears thin by the end of act one, is a band that is able to, at the very least, match Davids for musicianship and performance. The importance of that collective – drummer, pianist, keyboardist/saxophonist, pianist, guitarist, bassist, a trio of backing singers and a quartet of dancers – is never the focus of the show’s marketing material, which is perhaps understandable given that few will remember who Whitney Houston’s drummer, guitarist or pianist was.
Frustratingly, some of the names of these musicians in the programme don’t match with the onstage introduction by Davids (and, tellingly, their names don’t appear on the production’s website, either), so being too effusive in praise is difficult…
That said, Nicholas McCreadie – possibly; Davids said something else – behind the drumkit is a real find, capable of doing very much more than simply keeping rhythm. Seated above and behind everyone else, he naturally draws the eye and his performance provides whoever’s looking with more than their money’s worth.
The stage set is solid, not great. A more dynamic design – and perhaps some more imaginative lighting – would give the show an added dimension. As it stands, there are a handful of variables that keep things fresh: Davids changes costumes regularly; the dance crew show off different choreographic ideas; four mirrorballs make sporadic appearances and the pace is increased and decreased via choice of song.
The music is what keeps the audience engrossed, so the room for improvement in the design may only be considered sometime down the line, if a point is reached when the music is not enough in its own right to fill whatever theatre the show is visiting.