The premiere unveiling of Tiger Bay the Musical, currently running at the Artscape, is a stark reminder that South Africa has a firm spot in the global arts scene. Written by Michael Williams (who has Welsh ancestry but is still ours!) in association with Cape Town Opera, Tiger Bay the Musical is based on life in the eponymous Tiger Bay, a multi-ethnic bay port in Cardiff, Wales. Quite how Williams and the Wales Millennium Centre have managed to keep this immersive show under such tight wraps is a mystery – except that it suddenly feels like the perfect reactionary artistic approach to address our current social vernacular. Much of the storyline shows metaphoric traces of our shameful xenophobic outbursts, the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement in America, and the wind of change for feminist movements sweeping across the world.
The plotline is kept as secretive as the Sphinx, with not even the programme revealing much. But Williams’ tale is one of those epic all-encompassing vehicles starring a downcast-yet-ambitious African immigrant who takes on the world with a combination of brains, hard work and audacity. But beyond that the subplots deal with suffragettes challenging the system with unwavering bravado, grime-smeared coal workers with a perpetual grimace of despair, and hopeful immigrants yearning for a fresh start.
A snazzy energy is immediately unleashed into the auditorium by a dozen or so pint-sized performers known as the ‘Water Boys’. Dressed in rags, the raucous ensemble delves into the musical’s first big number ‘Little Things & Every Donkeyman’ with gusto. They certainly more than hold their own next to Annie’s ‘It’s a Hard Knock Life’ as they opt for entertaining and theatrical family fare with a rendering almost as terrifying as it is exhilarating. And standing firm among established adults is the stunning child-actress, Ruby Llewelyn (alternating with Louise Harvey) as Ianto. This gauche gamine, hardened by the hard-knock effects of the Industrial Revolution proved to be the audience favourite on opening night. Llewelyn portrays our unlikely heroine with spiky and unpredictable abandon. It’s a hard to be sassy and lovable at the same time, but Llewelyn somehow pulls it off with the ease of a seasoned professional.
Luvo Tamba as Themba is a very different kind of performer. His operatic voice and intonation adds tremendous emotion to Themba’s dialogue. At times Tamba seems unsure of himself, but that seems to ring true to the idea of Themba and his desire to assimilate. A lot of his concentration seems to be going towards maintaining the Zulu English accent, but he gets away with it, just. We root for Themba as he careers from one setback to the next, and he pulls off some of the gut-wrenching scenes with a brilliant urgency. Vikki Bebb’s Rowena is an impulsive, engagingly headstrong suffragette who teeters between moral reckoning and emotional fulfillment. With her earnest smile and kind-hearted demeanour, she is reminiscent of the classic kindergarten teacher. But underneath the sugary innocence lies a perfect hint of sensuality and an oddly realist approach to life. The much anticipated kiss of the evening may flash through faster than a paparazzi’s camera, but Bebb’s longing strokes and stares more than reveal her affection for her leading man. Above all, she has a crystal clear voice that relishes every note of her musical requirements.
Olivier and Tony Award-winning director Melly Still, along with co-director Max Barton, captures the current zeitgeist in many ways while mastering a sly and ferocious direction. Their Tiger Bay is depicted as a harsh and gritty world, although not entirely without charity. And with such a stupendous production, the stakes are high. Luckily Still and Barton are aided and abetted by an exceptionally gifted team. The set design exhibits a sharp and minimalist grim platform. With a huge imposing ship front, dangling oversized anchor chain, long angular lines and uneven shaped panels, many of the art direction motifs hark back to the early German Expressionism movement in silent cinema. They’ve achieved that rare precision in stagecraft where performance and setting flow in a cohesive and steady stream. Joshua Carr’s atmospheric lighting control intermittently slices into the spacious Artscape stage as the focus shifts. At times deliberately brittle and austere, it also has unassuming warm white hues which support the constant energy on stage.
Nuanced costuming and styling can often expand a story or character in different ways. The poufy Edwardian skirts of this show reveal the time period of the story (between 1900 and 1905), but what set and costume designer Anna Fleischle is really doing, along with costume director Natasha Prynne, is fine-tuning an attitude. It’s remarkable to see how they have interjected some creative liberty and quirks into what would normally be a very rigid style. Rowena’s floorlength hemline is indicative of her more leisurely and respected social position, while Klondike’s exuberant colours and practical above-the-ankle hemline allude to a sense of pronounced freedom and individuality. These A-line silhouettes once again amplify that linear and Expressionist vibe evident throughout the production. A comic ‘lady of leisure’ interlude shows off Elizabeth Solomon’s excellent millinery skills, and the idiosyncratic combination of style, substance and personality that lends such potency to Tiger Bay’s characters.
Choreographer Kenneth Tharp and composer Daf James share a delicate understanding of the capacity of the musical to entertain audiences while taking a hefty side-swipe at the society to which they belong. Tharp’s unassumingly organic choreography is as clear-cut as the characters of this production. Of the show’s numbers, ‘Taste of Home’ could be the elected theme song, but it is easily rivaled by the aspirational and emotive ’Shadowland’. The live orchestra, led by Jeff Howard, makes for a more tailor-made experience – although at times a tad too overwhelming, rendering most of the diction inaudible. But Luvo Tamba’s deep and expressive bass voice is a tremendous trump card, used to its full effect. As he sails into ‘Kind of Steel’, Tamba instantly transports the audience into a more operatic realm regardless of the realist lyrics. As a whole the musical assimilation is cool and concise. The result is that nearly every song in the show works as a complex historical concert, layering musical pasts with the musical present, just as the historic past mingles with the political present.
Tiger Bay the Musical represents something of an anomaly by infusing African nuances, and the tragic plot turn takes a marked departure from its usual saccharine American predecessors. Here we have a truly original paean that deals with contemporary themes in beautiful, powerful and memorable song. As insensitive as it may sound, the most provocative and impactful works are often conceived in periods of appalling discontent. It’s almost crude to think that Cabaret, for instance, was conceived in height of Nazism. So who would’ve thought our tumultuous era of social turmoil could be home to such a terrific looking and sounding production with all the trappings of a big budget blockbuster? Kudos to Michael Williams and his team. Together they have created an instant classic which is as culturally relevant to South Africa as it is to the world. It’s so rare to get the first shot at seeing something this good and with so much promise; do anything you can to get a ticket.
Benn Van Der Westhuizen
Tiger Bay the Musical is currently running at the Artscape Opera House from 20 until 27 May 2017. Book tickets at Computicket.