“How do you find justice when the law is unjust?”
Never before seen in Australia – in fact, never before performed in English – Madiba The Musical is a poetic portrayal of the life and influence of Nelson Mandela and the political emancipation of an entire nation.
Settling in to the Comedy Theatre on Opening Night, anticipation lingered like mist over the crowd. How would writers, Jean-Pierre Hadida and Alicia Sebrien tell the well-known story of one of the world’s most recognised icons for racial equality? Expecting a celebration of the man responsible for the movement that broke down segregation and prejudice in South Africa, the audience were keen to experience what the evening had in store. And were not disappointed.
While the show itself is still a little green, it certainly takes audiences on a journey through Mandela’s patient and enduring fight for both physical and political freedom, celebrating the persistence and, ultimately, the triumph of the oppressed. Rather than simply commiserating the injustice, Madiba The Musical uses the story to unravel just what it was like to be racially vilified in South Africa in the 20th Century and uses audience empathy as a tool to instil that message.
Without a distinct theatrical tone, the piece borrowed stylistically from popular Broadway musicals and drew upon Brechtian conventions, linking a series of vignettes together chronologically to shape the narrative. As such, the stage was largely vacant, with projections aiding scene transitions and keeping the audience abreast of the swift timeline. Small set pieces helped to spark imagination while maintaining the minimalistic scheme, leaving the lighting and the actors to fill the vast space. In this case, the show may have benefited from a more intimate venue to draw the audience further into the story.
Musically, the show fuses a range of styles, from traditional African chants to rap and pop, right through to both legit and contemporary musical theatre. Heavily influenced by the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda, we are shown through the story by the Narrator (David Denis) who raps poetry to his own hip-hop beat. Hints of Javert from Les Misérables trickle through both the character and musical expression of the antagonist, Peter Van Leden (Blake Erickson), “a man defined by everyday racism,” particularly during his Act One ballad. And, finally, the show gives a nod to Disney through the music of the romantic subplot between William Xulu (Barry Conrad) and Helena Van Leden (Madeline Perrone).
The small band were able to produce a great sound and the percussion section was a stand out. While hidden behind a scrim for the majority of the show, the sound they produced was so full and precise that I was left wondering if the cast were performing to a track. However, the opening number of Act Two brought their time in the spotlight and the audience were given the chance to revel in their magic with them.
Passion was the driving force behind each choreographic moment, with robust, bold and strikingly tight movement across the board. A strong contemporary influence was clear and, fused with rhythmic African movement and shades of hip hop, every dance was a celebration of life, of progress, of victory. The tension and release of the story was paralleled through the choreography and brought to life through the cast’s full embodiment and ownership of the steps.
The Narrator, who conjured up the characters of the past with his contemporary rap and modern dance moves, was played by David Denis. Picking us up where he left us and transporting us to the next vignette in time, he played a high-energy and high-intensity role. Using the pop and lock hip hop style, his movements mimicked the fast, fast, slow of time as we were experiencing it and, with a few tricks thrown in for good measure, he had the audience captivated.
We were also privy to an athletic performance, in every sense, from Tim Omaji (Timomatic). His physicality was lively throughout, putting his smooth moves to good use; his acrobatic vocals were pristine; and, although his previous acting experience hasn’t afforded him the opportunity to play many meaty roles, he delivered an impressive portrayal of Sam Onotou with passion and heart.
Barry Conrad, the male romantic lead, William Xulu, was also a stand out in the singing stakes and the onstage vocal gymnastics battle between he and Omaji was a show stopping moment.
Madeline Perrone brought the Disney with her representation of Helena Van Leden and her duet with Conrad was stunning.
Ruva Ngwenya, who played Winnie Mandela, Nelson’s wife, was another stand out with incredibly strong, soulful vocals with a deep, rich tone. Her voice was a joy to listen to and left the audience craving more.
Finally, Perci Moeketsi, who played Mandella himself was an ideal choice for the role. He brought the right mix of wisdom and kindness to the role and made the transition across over 50 years of history both compelling and believable.
With a standing ovation from the Opening Night crowd, it is clear that this show is an important piece that tells a story as relevant today as it ever has been. A nostalgic look at an important period in history, it reminds us all that “in the end, reconciliation has to happen in the hearts and minds of people.”
Madiba the Musical is now playing at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne’s East End Theatre District, ahead of a national tour.
For more information and tickets: https://madibamusical.com.au/