As a history lesson, Orpheus in Africa is an astoundingly original and entertaining work. Currently running at the Fugard Theatre, the show is a thought-provoking and galvanising look at the man who reinvented the perception of the black-entertainers system during the conservative Victorian era. Orpheus McAdoo and his touring group of Virginia Jubilee Singers triumphantly move beyond the enslavement of their Southern past by way of song. This uncomfortable chapter of history seemed far too serious to be presented in so cavalier and racially volatile a format, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s David Kramer, the legendary South African playwright and director renowned for those sassy, biting musicals such as Kat and the Kings and Ghoema.
The musical gains depth and resonance from its ensemble cast. Aubrey Poo’s majestic aura exemplifies his leading man’s essential dignity and compassion. His Orpheus McAdoo is blessed with a fair number of monologues to display his pleasantly romantic baritone. His love interest is portrayed by Lynelle Kenned, who has a beautifully soothing voice. Kenned succeeds in making the goodness of the warm and principled Mattie interesting.
As Lucy, Jill Levenberg’s mien is stern and saturnine. Her flawless Southern accent lords authoritatively over the rest of the cast, who often stumble with its complex nuances. Levenberg, however, holds steady while honing a distinctly authentic Old Virginian feel, which ultimately furthers her character’s erudite reputation. Jessica Sole’s Lady Loch adds a touch of much-needed class and accuracy to the show. With her perpetually stiff and upright posture, raised chin, and lofty looks of disdain, Sole embodies the restraint and sophistication of the Victorian woman; a role that’s accentuated by her expert British prose.
The rest of the ensemble cast – many returning for the show’s second run – is exceptionally strong. The minstrel duo of Sne Dladla and Dean Balie provides fall-over funny antics with their vaudevillian bounce, while Gideon Lombard flounces amusingly as the awkward but crowd-pleasing Toerien.
Orpheus in Africa’s trump card is the line-up of the country’s most seasoned creative professionals. Saul Radomsky’s kitschy set design unfurls something nifty that blends surprisingly well with the small, cozy stage of the Fugard Theatre. The use of simple digital projections detailing locations gives the glossy production a much needed air of abstract reality. Shelley Adriaanzen’s tight choreography of the virtuosic tap sequence in the second act almost feels like an ode to the good old Broadway razzmatazz of yesteryear. Arranger and musical director Charl-Johan Lingenfelder shifts the production with awe-inspiring brilliance, serving up a stirringly period-specific selection of gospel hits, vibrant jazz and crooning love songs. The plaintive solo laments of Orpheus and Mattie are memorable but faintly over-sentimental, but on the whole the songs are jovial and uptempo, deliberately undercutting the seriousness of the storyline.
Despite all the intrigue, director David Kramer and his creative team don’t want their spectators sitting too complacently. The disreputable conventions of the old minstrel shows have been harnessed to tell the tale, including using a jokey running commentary from the buffoon-like comedic double act. Every muscular, choreographed move has an air of subversion. The smiles beaming our way allude to a parody of subservience. For one of their many title numbers, the minstrel duo dons top hats and white clown lips, throwing out jazz hands in a mime of showbiz eagerness to please. Thus, the production’s political point about social injustice reverberates clearly. The crowd-pleasing closing number starts as a hymn of the stereotypical American South of mint juleps and strumming banjos and melts soothingly into a heart-warming chorus. Everyone in the stalls was on their feet, loudly cheering their way into a standing ovation. Orpheus in Africa is a passionately entertaining and immensely funny, even if it flaunts more than a little self-righteousness.
Benn van der Westhuizen
Orpheus in Africa is currently running at the Fugard Theatre from 7 October 2015 until 9 January 2016.