South Africans live through music, so it is no surprise that musical theatre has a strong following in our country. Appropriate, then, that it was a musical that saw a multi-racial team create what Drum Magazine in 1959 already described as a ‘smash hit’. That landmark hit was King Kong, the ‘all-African jazz opera’, which went on to defy the odds when it transferred from South Africa to London in 1961. Now, after 20 years of putting together the scattered puzzle pieces of a show very nearly confined to the vaults of history, Eric Abraham presents a Fugard Theatre Productions reimagining of this famous musical in the form of King Kong – Legend of a Boxer.
The original book – by Harry Bloom, with lyrics and first draft book by Pat Williams – logically couldn’t encapsulate all that was the tumultuous life of the gambling, hard-living boxer Ezekiel Dlamini, who went by many names: ‘King Marshall’, ‘The Spy Smasher’, and, most frequently, ‘King Kong’.
Dlamini’s rise to stardom from humble rural beginnings is what grabbed the media’s attention in the ’50s. His press-endorsed celebrity status formed a big part of people’s fascination with their adored King Kong, and they turned his life into a folk tale that downplayed his bullying in favour of his spirited nature.
The original book built on this press-propagated image of Dlamini and focused on the popular myths associated with his flamboyant antics, to romanticise his tragic tale in the setting of Sophiatown – known for its resilience and embracing of a vibrant culture in the face of apartheid-rooted adversities. Much like the people of Sophiatown, the musical wanted a hero, and saw that in the myth developed around the real life King Kong. A good deal of this musical is therefore nostalgia-driven, and the multi-talented creative team clearly respects that as they do justice to the original musical memory many still cherish today.
The reimagined production – under the impressive direction of Jonathan Munby and with expertly revised book and additional lyrics by William Nicholson, and additional music and arrangements by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (assisted by co-musical director Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba) – stays true to the telling of the myth that made the man a legend, while infusing it with a subtle and very effective hint of contemporary style. Collectively, the team have shaped it into a modern production that is still filled to the brim with jazzy beats and amazing songs, all brilliantly executed by an astonishingly talented cast and an exceptional nine-piece band.
With that historical nostalgia in mind, Act One of this new King Kong staging focuses primarily on celebrating the humorous, ambitious, and rambunctious South African Romeo, while Act Two reveals how he deals with the trials and tribulations associated with love and loss. King Kong faces his adversaries (in and out of the ring) head-on, while clinging to the love of his Juliet, shebeen queen Joyce. While King Kong and Joyce grapple with their status as star-crossed lovers, their struggle is juxtaposed with the love and happiness enjoyed by two other couples in their immediate circle. This underlines the musical’s message that happiness, as with everything in life, has seasons and claims its own kind of balance.
Andile Gumbi as King Kong gives commanding expression to the legend’s machismo, and his status as non-conformist showman not easily intimidated by any gangster’s knifeman-dance, while Nondumiso Tembe treats Joyce with great reverence and makes the legendary Miriam Makeba’s role her own, bringing a strong-willed presence to the part and delivering a beautifully clear vocal performance.
One of the contemporary elements added to this production is the packaging of the original story as a reflective cautionary tale. It sees Sne Dladla’s endearing character, Pops, telling four impressionable youths from the present day about the legend of King Kong. Dladla is truly the linchpin of this vibrant, people-centred production. He is a theatrical triple threat, and his performance unassumingly lures you in, until you find yourself rooting as much for his happiness as for that of the apparently doomed royal couple.
The deceptively simplistic set design by Paul Wills proves to be phenomenal, allowing the show to accommodate stealthy scene changes without impacting on or distracting from the action. In fact, every scene change enhances the dramatic effect, with added nuances courtesy of the beautiful lighting design by Tim Mitchell.
The combination of music and choreography makes for an exhilarating experience. Gregory Maqoma’s choreography will make you fall in love with this musical, thanks to his expression of the emotion that runs through the story. Be prepared to witness some truly jaw-dropping moves. These even include the imaginative and very striking merging of traditional and swing dance. One can easily see that Maqoma’s creative contribution to this staging will have people musing about his wonderful vision for years to come.
Overall, acknowledging the deference with which the contemporary team has stayed true to the original, there is but one element of concern, and that comes down to the decision of not allowing the audience to decide for themselves whether they like the character of King Kong in the end.
As the lights dim and the ‘hero’ exists the stage, there is undeniable contemplation in the air: Is it for a man to determine his own ‘end’, regardless of circumstances, or are there sometimes circumstances that would call for him to tow the cell-block line, regardless of personal persuasion? While this heavy question ripples through the audience, the stage lights suddenly flash and the shadow of a victory stance is revealed. The ending may have been more effective if the emotive cliff-hanger had been left to the audience to unpack for themselves, without having a specific image of the legend projected on their consciousness. But this small gripe constitutes a mere few seconds of a show containing a multitude of theatrical highlights.
The creative team and cast certainly deserve applause for the commitment and vision they have shown in producing such a sleek and vivacious show that is sure to have Cape Town talking. King Kong is a theatrical treat, and something to treasure and celebrate for the fact that it brings to the contemporary stage a part of South African theatre history in a way that makes one appreciated the talent this country has and the music that can still, after so many years, get a crowd’s toes tapping.
Go (re)experience the legacy of an unlikely hero in this love story by watching a musical that through emotion, rhythmic beats, and all-round amazing design embraces the resilience and charm of a bygone jazz-loving era, and transports that charm into the modern theatrical milieu. Catch King Kong – Legend of a Boxer at the Fugard Theatre until 2 September 2017. Tickets are available at Computicket.