(A version of this critique appeared in the East African 28th June- 4th July 2010)
MUSICAL theatre is in the spotlight in London, with critics like Michael Billington in the Guardian expressing concern about “the unhealthy dominance of the musical in the West End”.
He adds, “T.V. in particular, treats musicals as the only theatrical form that matters.” This claim is triggered by the BBC reality shows in which Andrew Lloyd Webber searches for the star of a musical.
It is not surprising however, that producers in the West End- London’s ‘theatre land’- have a preference for musicals over other genres, considering that the annual revenue that musicals bring is in the hundreds of millions of pounds.
I am not immune to the musical theatre fever. I never missed a single episode of How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? on the BBC Entertainment channel and whenever there is a musical showing in the theatres, I will not miss it.
So I went to watch the Storymoja musical The Matatu From Watamu That Drove Into The Sea on 16th May 2010 at the Sarakasi Dome in Ngara.
Written by Muthoni Muchemi, it is a book musical in that it relies on spoken lines (called the book) and the lyrics to develop the plot, unlike a concept musical, which builds the performance around a given theme.
When taken scuba diving by a KWS warden (Valentine Kamau), Rasta Driver (Joshua Moraya) sees a lucrative business opportunity under the sea and decides to take his matatu there. The Octopus (Moses Akati), who is frightening and menacing to the other sea creatures (a cast of children), becomes Rasta Driver’s conductor and together, they cause marine mayhem, forcing the other sea creatures into the matatu and disrupting the entire ecosystem. Eventually, the other sea creatures bring in the shark and Rasta Driver learns his lesson.
The music, written by David Ohingo and Sakata Media played it’s role in developing the plot and the emotions of the character and generally, making the musical lively and entertaining. The book also developed the plot and addressed moral and environmental issues.
In a musical, the choreography is crucial to the performance and choreographers these days make significant contributions to dramatic expression. Apart from displaying the talent of performers, dance can also be used to express ideas and develop character.
In Matatu, choreographer Lilian Alembo used dance mainly to express motion; the motion of the matatu and the motion of the sea. Given that the musical is based on the coastal town of Watamu, I imagine that Alembo would have had an endless repertoire of energetic dances for inspiration but instead, the sea creatures swayed from side to side, for the better part of the performance and this slackened its pace.
In an opera, the performers must be good singers and may not be required to act. In a musical, the principle performers have to be good actors first, and then they should be good singers and if possible, they could be good dancers too. A performer who has these three qualities is called a ‘triple threat’.
It was difficult to tell if the principle performers, Kamau, Moraya or Akati are a triple threat because the book, the music and the choreography did not converge in a manner that allowed them to deliver the themes and emotions of the musical with the energy and passion and the spectacle that characterise musical theatre.
Costumes too, play an important role in bringing about this ‘spectacular’ aspect of a musical. The director, in this case, Keith Pearson, can choose to pull (rent) or to build (construct) the costume or both. Phoenix and Braeburn theatres have large costume inventories that a director could choose from.
I appreciate that budget constraints make costume acquisition a nightmare for directors particularly in Kenya where the craft of costume making is not very developed. In fact, this is an area in theatre that has been overlooked for far too long and the role of costume is often underestimated.
Costumes set the tone and style of a production. They may point to the historical period or the location- the underwater world in this case and they should indicate the nature or psychological state of characters.
In the case of a musical, they should add colour, texture and shape and enhance the lines of the dancers. Where applicable, they may add to the overall symbolism of the production.
In Matatu, it looked like- as is often the case- the cast members were asked to bring what they could and a tailor in town was told to make something that looks like an octopus.
In my opinion, considering that the book, the lyrics and especially the music, were of good standard, a potentially good musical was botched by the costume and the choreography.
© Anne Manyara 2010