Thoughts on Madiba the Musical

What: Madiba the Musical – A Celebration of Nelson Mandela
Where: Comedy Theatre, Melbourne

Performances run until 28 October, 2018
For more information, please visit https://madibamusical.com.au

Currently playing at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre, Madiba the Musical – a Celebration of Nelson Mandela makes its English language debut in Australia. Written and composed by Jean-Pierre Hadiba, based on the book by Hadiba and co-author Alicia Sebrien; that production was later adapted into English by Dylan Hadida and local director, Dennis Watkins, building upon the work of French director Pierre-Yves Duchesne.

Despite its suggestive title, the story surprisingly isn’t entirely focused on the life of Nelson Mandela himself, but rather features interwoven stories created from that time of apartheid that he so fought to oppose. For someone like me who didn’t know much about his life, this is a very important musical, because you are confronted and thrust into these shocking situations and circumstances, and thus educated, on the things that were happening in South Africa during his time. It’s also difficult not to feel inspired and uplifted by these stories. I left the theatre understand and believing that everyone is equal, everyone can make a difference and one person can change the nation.

Act I seems a little clunky, confusingly jumping from year-to-year. The production comes alive in its tighter second act, with less narration, allowing scenes to unfold with their own impact. I was especially drawn to the bitter-sweet relationship between likeable William Xulu (Barry Conrad) and sweet Helena Van Leden (Madeline Perrone). Their duet of The Colour of Your Skin is also easily a highlight of the show. And while this Romeo and Juliet-esque storyline may seem a little out of place and put in as a draw-card for female viewership, its reasoning becomes clear by the production’s end.

However, the strength of this production belongs to the women whose vocals outshine the men – especially by Ruva Ngwenya (Winnie Mandela) and Tarisai Vushe (Sandy Xulu, sister of Will) during Act I. That’s not to say the men aren’t of the same calibre; they just don’t get the same opportunities to prove it. The acceptance is Blake Erickson, who impressed me with his riveting performance as policeman Peter Van Leden and delivery of the big, anthemic number, My Civilisation. As a side note, to me, the end of his story arc seemed very reminiscent of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, as he confesses his inner turmoil to his daughter during It’s Time Now To Forgive.

Perci Moeketsi is superb as the great man himself. So You Think You Can Dance and Australia’s Got Talent second runner-up, Tim ‘Timomatic’ Omaji makes his return to theatre as Sam Onatou, a young activist who meets Mandela after he is arrested in South Africa.

Set design is minimal but forgiven with the clever use of graphical elements and projections on screen. During the company’s large dance numbers Rainbow Nation and Freedom, you won’t notice the absence of scenery thanks to the much-needed vibrancy injected by costume designer Sabrina Gomis Vallée, that’s then fully-utilised by choreographer Johan Nus, flooding the stage with colour.

I did notice however, a clear distinction between songs performed by those of white and black skin. I don’t mean to offend anybody; I’m just unaware of the politically correct terms to use here. I just mean the songs performed by white cast members have more of a classically musical sound, whereas those performed by black cast members are of the joyous and gospel-based variety. It’s a shame there’s no Madiba the Musical recording, as the soundtrack is strong – ranging from tug-on-your-heartstrings emotive to those feel-good, high-energy numbers.

Despite some minor lighting and sound issues on opening night, Madiba is a powerful, uplifting and inspirational show, with a catchy soundtrack to boot! It’s playing at the Comedy Theatre for a limited time. Highly recommended.

Also: I note this perhaps because I have a Desktop Publishing background, but the programme is so exquisitely designed that it’s worth checking out if you can.

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