At the Elgin Theatre, Toronto, Ont.
Book by Craig Lucas
Based on the original novel “Madame Sousatzka” by Bernice Rubens
Music by David Shire
Lyrics by David Maltby, Jr.
Additional Vocal Arrangements and Music by Lebo M
Directed by Adrian Noble
Choreography by Graciela Daniele
Set by Anthony Ward
Costumes by Paul Tazewell
Lighting by Howell Binkley
Sound by Martin Levan
Projection design by Jon Driscoll
Cast: Ryan Allen
Sara Jean Ford
The production is overproduced; over-written with too many storylines, many of which should be cut and too many extraneous songs that should also be cut. However the singing of Victoria Clark as Sousatzka, Judy Kaye as the Countess and Montego Glover as the mother, is glorious.
The Story. Sousatzka is based on the 1962 novel Madame Sousatzka by Bernice Rubens and not on the 1988 film starring Shirley MacLaine. The novel is set in London. It’s about Madame Sousatzka, an eccentric Polish piano teacher and her gifted student Marcus, the son of a single mother from Eastern Europe.
But in the musical, Sousatzka, this simple story has been fiddled with to such an extent that it’s just chocking with storylines, many of which are not developed or are eye-poppingly incredible. Playwright Craig Lucas has made several changes and additions for the musical Sousatzka (I guess copyright rules prevented the producers from using the clearer title of Madame Sousatzka. Sousatzka doesn’t really tell ticket buyers much about the show).
The setting is still London but it begins in South Africa in 1976 during the uprisings against apartheid. A man named Jabulani Khenketha leads a group of black South Africans seeking justice but are shot at by the police. Several people are killed and Jabulani is sent to prison for treason. His wife Xholiswa Khenketha and their young son, Themba leave South Africa and make a dangerous journey to London (1983) and a better life. Themba is now the gifted student of Madame Sousatzka.
Over the course of the show we see Madame Sousatzka’s back story—family wiped out by the Nazis in Warsaw, Poland (1938) and there are other horrors she experiences as well. There are the back stories of the rest of the people who live in the boarding house with Madame Sousatzka; Themba is torn between his cultural attachment to South Africa and the transplanted South Africans in London and his awakening to another kind of life involving Madame Sousatzka and her odd friends. Themba becomes attached to Sarah, a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed ballerina in his school which does not go down too well with his mother. Themba is also conflicted with who he is as a person and the music he wants to follow. And of course as Themba becomes accomplished Madame Sousatzka worries that he will leave her on his way to success. Lots too digest.
The Production. In the musical world you set the tone, mood and idea of a musical in the first five minutes of the show. In the first five minutes of Sousatzka we are in Soweto, South Africa, 1976 (this is projected on the back wall of the stage) at a rally against apartheid led by Jabulani, Themba’s father. Several traditional South African songs are sung by a throng in full voice including the South African national anthem and an anti-apartheid song. (I wish there was a projected translation of the songs so we could get the full benefit of their meaning.) Police shoot; people are dead and there is a court case with three very angry prosecutors screaming their verdict as Jabulani is put in prison. There is the escape of Themba and his mother to London where most of the musical takes place, except for those scenes that go off to other places.
This musical does not know what it wants to be it’s so confused. It doesn’t know if it wants to be a rousing South Africa story—though that gets the audience ‘up’ and excited–or an otherwise ‘quiet’ ordinary story in London with some lovely ballads. .
I found Anthony Ward’s set oddly designed and often oppressive. Too often there is a backdrop that goes up a bit higher than the actors on stage that establishes where we are—Sousatzka’s flat, Xholiswa’s London flat, etc., but above that is darkness. It’s as if the actors are playing the scene in a cave.
The South Africa scenes have the benefit of an impressive rising sun etc. thanks to the projections by Jon Driscoll, but for the most part there is a sense of gloom because of the odd design by Antony Ward. Strange because he’s a fine designer.
While Craig Lucas’s book is choking with too many story-lines he has captured the deep devotion that Sousatzka has to music. Lucas has also captured her quirkiness in telling Themba how to feel the music and let it play. In Themba we get a sense of the depth of his character.
For all the problems with this show, there are some bright spots. Victoria Clark as Madame Sousatzka is a gift of an actress. She captures the eccentric oddness of Sousatzka, her confidence, her fire and in her quiet moments, her uncertainty. And she sings like a dream. Clark is a true, clear, rich soprano who knows how to interpret the heart and soul of a song. She sings the beautiful song “Music Is In You” to convey that love of music to Themba.
Clark is ably matched by Judy Kaye as the Countess, a woman with a heart of gold and a keeper of many secrets. Kaye also sings beautifully. One of the best moments is their duet on “Let Go” a beautiful song about coming to terms with knowing when to let a person in your life go on to other things. Both are glorious singers and lovely actors.
Jordan Barrow as Themba has passion and charm. You get the sense of his growing confidence and confliction of where he should be in the world. He has poise and ability to handle this tricky part. Montego Glover as his mother Xholiswa also sings beautifully and is a fine actress. She conveys the pride and stubbornness in wanting the best for her son. And she does a rousing rendition of “Song of the Child” that is thrilling, until you realise that the song is oddly placed as if it was dropped in the story like an errant piece of lint. It’s an important song and should be better placed.
But too often one wondered what was up with all those songs? The music is by David Shire. The lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. Additional music is by Lebo M who has written the rousing South Africa portion. (All have done better work elsewhere.) There are 16 songs in the first act and 17 in the second with about 16 songs taking place in South Africa. Many of them should be cut because they are sung by people we don’t know or in situations that can’t support them. It’s as if the creators are determined to beat us into submission with too many story lines and too many songs.
Adrian Noble’s direction is pedestrian at best. He shows us the individual people in Sousatzka’s house involved in their activities: a man manipulates a client (he’s an osteopath), a young woman manipulates a client, (she’s a prostitute). What’s missing is who they actually are for context. Songs are often sung full out to the audience, or speeches addressed to them but not the people the speech is meant for. So old fashioned.
Graciela Daniele’s choreography for the South African scenes is lively and acrobatic. When there are scenes in Xholiswa’s flat that is cause for more rousing singing—there are usually at least 20 people there—Daniele has them gyrating to a seductive beat.
So many people associated with this jumble of a show have done good work elsewhere. You want to ask, “What happened here? Are you too close to see you need a scissors to cut out swaths of this clutter?”
Themba might have a “Brand New Family” but that song comes from no where about people we know nothing about. Cut it.
Themba has enough on his plate to contend with besides also having to deal with a blonde, blue-eyed girlfriend ballet dancer since nothing of that relationship is developed. It’s just plopped in and it’s cheesy. Cut it. Cut the ridiculous number “All I Wanna Do (Is Go Dancin”) because it veers away from the central plot.
When Themba goes to a soiree at the home of the man who will arrange a concert for him, that is not cause for a production number of “Manders Salon” of the snotty, bigoted people invited there. The song is clever for no reason and the message of it has been handled better elsewhere in the show. Cut it.
While Judy Kaye sings “Ring One Bell” beautifully about a Christmas in Warsaw, the song comes from no where and is supported by nothing and veers away from the plot. Sorry, cut it.
And while the incredulous ending might make one think this is a happy ending it’s just another eye-rolling moment in a show full of them.
Comment. Craig Lucas’s book of Sousatzka seems like a checklist of the ills of the 20th century—apartheid, the Holocaust, rape, racism, bigotry and interracial relations to name a few—and it makes the whole enterprise seem disingenuous. It’s as if the creators were taking a basically simple story and puffing it up to look important and substantial. And it’s neither.
Sousatzka marks the return of Garth Drabinsky to theatre producing after an absence of 15 years, some of which was spent in jail because of fraud. His intention is to send this to Broadway in the fall. If Garth Drabinsky thinks this new production is Broadway material he’s 20 years out of date. This production has been kicking around on Drabinsky’s bucket list for years and in that time it doesn’t seem that he’s noticed that Broadway has changed. These over-blown, bloated productions have passed their ‘best-by-date.” Song after song is bellowed out giving a false sense of ‘tingle’ and a distinct sense of being manipulated.
There are 11 roles in Sousatzka with a stuffed cast of 48 (and many of them should be cut.) In true Drabinsky fashion all the creative people on this show are either American or British. All the speaking roles are American. Of the cast of 48 only 16 are Canadian and they are relegated to the chorus. I have seen many of those Canadians in the chorus in lead roles in shows across the country, but you won’t find that in a Garth Drabinsky show. The message is clear: Canadians aren’t good enough for a creative or speaking role in a Drabinsky show.
Sousatzka was work shopped in Toronto (where the dollar is weak) and has its only run here before it hopes to go to Broadway in the fall. I would like to think this is one case that Drabinsky will not tell us (Canadians, Torontonians) how lucky we are that this show started here.
Teatro Proscenium Limited Parnership and Sousatzka Broadway Limited Partnership present a Garth Drabinsky Production:
Opened: March 23, 2017
Closes: April 9, 2017.
Cast: 48; 4; men, 8 women and a lot of chorus.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes.