CALLING US HOME (previously ‘Calling Me Home’) is back at the Artscape in the hope of capturing the hearts of audiences on a grand scale, a dream that appears to be ever out of reach for this musical. No longer entitled to the description “new musical”, it is rather another take at getting it right under a revised name.
I’m the type of reviewer who will always try and weigh the pros and cons of a show, and look for the silver lining or creative vision in a show even if it is not to my personal taste. After all, art is subjective. Yet, somewhere subjectivity needs to give way to logic: I don’t want to mislead people and encourage the spending of hard earned money if I don’t believe it justifiable at some level of taste or preference. Sometimes one has to be honest and just rip the bandage off to spare everyone a lot of long term tears and pain.
It’s real talk time: we’ve all given CALLING US HOME one, two, even three chances to captivate us and be the show that propels another SA musical to the international stage. This dream is perhaps one that is not meant to be.
Audiences first encountered a version of this musical in 2017. The response was lukewarm then, and I fear it is still just sitting comfortable at that point. This musical has so many narrative plot points it loses its identity. As a result, you cannot invest emotionally in any one of the (seems like) five leads, so if one dies you don’t really care. If a show can’t make you feel for the love and loss of those professing to be singing their hearts out, the battle has been lost before the fight even started.
The plot remains disjointed, with the main character Grace fading into the background as soon as she steps onto the shores of America after she fled her war-torn North African home. At this point aspirant singer Isabella (the sister of Grace’s love interest, Rafael) steps into the spotlight, along with her smitten friend Ben and the neighbourhood gangster/club owner Ivan. In between all of this there is a lot of fish market work to try and force the connection between Isabella and Grace (but it never really reaches the depth that one would find in a relationship such as that of Anita and Maria in West Side Story). Oh, there is also a love story for Grace’s friend, Lindiwe, and the owner of the fish market, Mr Sam. Getting back to the billed story, the love connection between Grace and Rafael does not get the proper time and attention to develop, making their first kiss feel unearned and leaving one with no sense of unease or disappointment when she looks to be answering the call home with little immediate thought for Rafael who finds himself the victim of an unfair justice system. Ultimately, it is his sister Isabela who sings him out of jail by unifying the community and sets him on his way to (somewhere in) Africa to find Grace in the hope that she loves him.
The show is in desperate need of a dramaturg (with no emotional ties) to tighten things up and give it direction. It needs a complete rewrite with some characters being left behind in the edit: touching on almost 3 hours long one simply cannot add to it in fear that your audience may completely clock out. We need depth of character development without more add-ons.
The references to Africa have been generalised to such a degree it loses all character or potential sense of meaning and plays into the American stereotype that the world cannot (or doesn’t want to) distinguish countries on our vibrant continent. The lack of respect for cultural depth in a musical that professes to be inspired by an African folk tale of a love that tore the sky apart verges on offensive and comes across as condescending.
The design of the show does not come together. The production opens with a pre-set of the cast sitting onstage in a semi-circle as if this will be a concert rather than a full musical. A pre-set is already a controversial theatrical device. A pre-set without purpose then makes me question the vision of a show. Boxes appear to have replaced most of a real set, which makes it less large scale musical and more innovative upcycling. The set, props and costumes also fall victim to the general identity crisis of the broader musical: it comes across as a rushed decision or afterthought (making me wonder what happened behind the scenes). I’m still not sure if we’re looking at the generalised Africa-Meets-America production with a 50s, 80s or the current day design eye; trying to connect the dots between the props and the costumes is potentially a futile exercise.
The choreography appears completely removed in style from the music, and perhaps out of skills reach of some of the cast, as we see only a small group breaking out into what feels like interpretative dance mid-scene every now and then.
Riveting storytelling is a fine art that requires a very specific skill set. Sadly, CALLING US HOME is proof that a collection of nice songs does not a good musical book make. You need cohesion between the songs, book, design and choreography for the story to grab your audience’s attention and hearts (the latter being the most important thing). And for that you need all the elements of the production to come together seamlessly as if they were always intended to function as one unit to be the emotional vehicle for everything that the audience is promised. This is not the case with CALLING US HOME: the show in its current iteration makes me wonder if anyone from the creative team ever met up for a collective production meeting to discuss the mood and style of the show, as it lacks a clear, or even seeming complimentary, vision.
In truth, I fear that the third-time-revised CALLING US HOME’s identity crisis may not be fixable. It may be time to retire this dream and make way for a new show and vision. To borrow from one of the production’s songs, this aint Broadway.
Overall it just left me feeling sad and empty. CALLING US HOME does not have the magical spark that gives a musical the right stuff for longevity. It reads as forced and contrived, with a lot of it feeling greatly inspired by West Side Story: The result is a musical that should feel like a South African original masterpiece, but comes across more as a superficial copy.
This does not mean that the cast is talentless. In fact, the contrary is true of this group of young thespians. The vocals of the show are the one redeeming quality. Some of the cast members truly impress with their vocal abilities and I hope to see them in other musical productions in future. Their stars deserve to shine bright. Hopefully producers use the viewing of CALLING US HOME as an opportunity to spot them and book them soonest for their next show.
In short, and it breaks my heart to say this, but please don’t call me home again.
Yes, ultimately this is all just my opinion. And if you feel convinced that I’m smoking my socks on this one, you have three more opportunities to see CALLING US HOME at the Artscape Theatre by 19 February 2023. Tickets available online through Computicket.