Every summer holiday needs a fun, vibey theatre experience that puts you in a relaxing mood and gets your toes tapping to the beat of the festive feels. Aunty Merle, The Musical offers audiences an opportunity for such indulgence at the Baxter Theatre.
Marc Lottering has established himself as one of South Africa’s most successful comedians. Although he usually wraps up a year with a great one-man comedy show, he is in a way stepping aside to give his most beloved character, Aunty Merle Abrahams from Belgravia Road in Athlone, the opportunity to shine.
As the Aunty who calls a spade-a-spade, in the nicest of ways, everyone can relate to her in some way or another. You either have an Aunty like her, or wish you had, because she will tune anyone who needs a talking to and move Table Mountain to make sure that everything is just right. Understandably then, when one hears that Aunty Merle is getting her own musical, you start exercising your laughing muscles, because funny is getting a tune and a tune!
Leading up to the show, press hints were dropped of high comedy drama to unfold when audiences see Aunty Merle’s daughter, Abigail (Tarryn Lamb) announce her engagement to Alan White (Stephen Jubber) of Bantry Bay, because “it is never smooth-sailing in the world of Musicals”. This then sets the scene for Abigail’s ex-boyfriend: enter Denver Paulse (Loukmaan Admas) via Mango Flight from Jhb to Cpt.
However, this setting is not where one actually finds the heart of the anticipated family drama. The true drama behind this musical is rooted in the family dynamics of Lydia Majolo (Tankiso Mamabolo) and her resentful daughter Nambitha Majola (Zandile Madliwa), who in turn encourages Denver to interfere with the wedding plans of Alan and Abigail. Aunty Merle and her interaction with the other characters then adds the comedy to the romcom shenanigans, as she 'tactfully' interferes where necessary for the greater good.
Sadly, in all this, the focus does not predominantly fall on Aunty Merle. In fact, one would want to see the story revolve more around her, as this is Aunty Merle’s musical and not that of the people she knows. As the saying goes, too many cooks spoil the broth, which I think may be the case here, creatively speaking. Too many ideas and too many influences (and possibly influencers) dilute the impact of this character based musical, which as a concept is quite exciting and does have great stand-out moments.
With a cast of 14 fabulously talented entertainers, the urge to give each one the opportunity to shine is undoubtedly strong. It is always a treat to see true talent on stage, but when a show is a few minutes short of 3 hours (interval included), one wonders whether all the scenes and subplots (of which there are a few) are necessary: Does it really substantively further the plot of the show to give the neighbour a full musical number or work in a phone call to family in Australia?
Within this lengthy show, there are great gems to be found. The moments when Aunty Merle sashays into the spotlight of her musical is when one finds the magic of this production. This is true especially in the scenes with her husband, Dennis (Royston Stoffels). Their banter make for truly hilarious scenarios that actually steal the show. Those are the moments that linger and reveal a good understanding of the need for depth of performance even in moments of hilarity. After all, timing in comedy is everything. Lottering and Stoffels are completely in harmony when it comes to that, and the laughs follow naturally.
Mention must also be made of the hilarious Kate Normington who plays Claire, Alan’s mother. With the dialogue given, she holds her own brilliantly. I would happily see a show featuring Lottering, Stoffels and Normington together again. Their style and understanding of theatre complement each other.
When it comes to the music of the musical, it cannot be denied that Lottering and Lamb are respectively very capable of putting together catchy songs. Holistically reflecting on the full score of the show, their individual styles – though it does allow for jaw-dropping moments when the beautiful vocals of Mamabolo, Madliwa, Roberto Kyle and Sizewesandile Mnisi take hold of a melody – do not necessarily naturally create the impression that you are watching one musical.
Opening with “I Believe In Love”, a number composed by Lamb, one initially gets the impression that Aunty Merle, The Musical will have a Grease-like style and tone. This is however quickly contrasted by the more comical “The Way To His Heart Is Through Your Tart” and alike written by Lottering. Though one cannot deny the skill of Lamb in her approach to music, it is Lottering’s compositions that stay truest to the character that carries the name of this musical. His arrangements balance humour and melody in a manner that showcases Aunty Merle’s one liners in a way that leaves the audience grinning and helps with the theatrical build-up to the moments that see them howling with laughter.
The fact that the production looks to incorporate too many themes and does not reveal a cohesive style in the melodic character of the musical, does leave one wondering whether time did not overtake the creative team in pulling together all the strings of this collaborative effort. Nevertheless, parts of Aunty Merle, The Musical hits the entertainment mark and resonates with audiences who inevitably howl with laughter.
Aunty Merle, The Musical may have too much going on as far as plot is concerned, but it is still fun with a good dose of flamboyant comedy flair. And sometimes, fun theatre just for the sake of fun is all one wants and needs of a much needed end-of-year laugh and a relaxing night out. Book your tickets through Computicket to see this production at the Baxter Theatre before run ends 20 January 2018.