By Craig Lucas
Directed by Adrian Noble
A Garth Drabinsky Production at the Elgin Theatre
March 23-April 9, 2017
Sousatzka, the new musical by the creative team of book writer Craig Lucas, lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr., and composer David Shire, is a colourful, bloated mess. Instead of following the contours of the original 1962 novel (Madame Sousatzka) by the late Bernice Rubens or the 1988 film that starred Shirley Maclaine, it strikes out on its own, ostensibly inspired by producer Garth Drabinsky’s vision of “bringing together onstage the world of the Jewish diaspora from Eastern Europe and the struggles of the South African anti-Apartheid activists in exile.” Warm-hearted, liberal, humane but utterly wrong-headed for what aspires to being a mega musical. The narrative kernel of an idiosyncratic but sensitive piano teacher guiding and inspiring a male prodigy gets lost in the large-scale patchwork fabric concocted by Craig Lucas’s unfocussed text, the eclectic score and lyrics, and Adrian Noble’s inability to find a cohesive, credible style for the production.
There are wonderful elements in the show. Anthony Ward’s rear scenic décor, accentuated by Howell Binkley’s effective lighting, provides a real sheen, beginning with glimmering gold Klimt colour, moving to a Mark Rothko red, and various other sensational colours in a rich palette. Paul Tazewell’s costumes, especially for the South African contexts, are vividly earthy and textured. Graciela Daniele and Maddie Kelly’s choreography is extraordinary all the way through, but particularly for the South African high leaps, martial kicks, and the disco boogie. And there are three utterly superb vocal performances by Victoria Clark (in the title role), Montego Glover (as the prodigy’s mother), and Judy Kaye (as Countess), as well as a wonderful sound design by Martin Levan.
But what is this musical about? Judging from what I saw on opening night, nobody connected with the show seems to have a clear, uncluttered idea, apart from a generalized benevolent hope about race, religion, and human relations. The score (buttressed by Lebo M.), too, fails to give the show a strong signature, because it tries to reach much farther than it could ever grasp. In the film, the boy was a prodigiously gifted East Indian teenager, already a departure from the novel’s Jewish boy. Now, the character has morphed into an African, giving the story a reason to sound its strident notes about Apartheid. Trouble is that the libretto opens by pushing racial politics into the foreground before later vulgarly projecting what look like hundreds of portraits of Jewish holocaust victims. And, in another vulgar irony, the resolution and denouement of the piece occurs at Christmas, with a large, decorated tree dominating the décor. So, there you have it: African, Jewish, and Christian, three huge motifs aspiring to a sort of moral benevolence.
But the characters are largely undeveloped and the dramatic surprise awaiting Mme. Sousatzka is eminently predictable, as is the triumphant artistic of Jordan Barrow’s Themba. True, the show moves from the many faceless to many with faces—in Africa, Warsaw, and London—but even the characters with actual faces (such as an eccentric osteopath, a lecherous impresario, and a beautiful ballerina girlfriend for Themba) are thinly drawn and far from engrossing. This Soustazka is woefully unripe for Toronto, let alone Broadway.