(This review appeared in The East African January 17-23 2011)
RECENTLY, I was called upon to direct a play, which had a substantial amount of music in it, although it was not a musical.
As the saying goes, only the wearer of the shoe knows where it pinches and though it is common knowledge that a theatre production is an expensive venture, it was in wearing my artist hat that I really took cognisance of this fact.
Thus, when I watched Changing Generations on Friday 7th January at Phoenix Theatre I was perhaps more indulgent in my analysis of the performance than I may ordinarily have been, but I still had my critic hat firmly in place.
Changing Generations, which was first performed at the Phoenix Theatre in 1992, is about changing times and changing attitudes from one generation to the next and it is not surprising that the show I watched was performed to a full house as this musical, whose book was written by James Falkland (1936-2007), is a must-watch.
The plot focuses on two young couples whose marriage prospects are challenged by unyielding parents who are set in their old ways. Mrs Kariuki (Catherine Kamau) is opposed to her son Kim’s (Waithaka Gatumia) engagement to Purity (Jane Gathoni) because the latter, an orphan, ‘has no background’. On the other hand, Mr Owiti’s (Kenga Sankei) opposition to his son Josh’s (Bryan Alufawani) engagement to Bella (Darshani Haria) stems from the fact that Bella is Indian.
Issues in modern relationships like unfaithfulness and AIDS are also addressed, especially in the relationship between JJ (Titus Wainaina) and Kanini (Alice Muthoni).
The musical is one of the most popular theatrical forms possibly due to the fact that it merges the three areas of performing arts- drama, music and dance- at par.
The peak of the book musical (a musical based on a story, such as Changing Genearations) was the 1940s and 1950s in America with, most notably, the production of The King and I (1951) and Sound of Music (1959) both of which were written by Richard Rogers (1902-1979) and Oscar Hammerstein (1895-1960) and both of which were adapted to film.
Despite the emergence of other types of musicals in the subsequent decades, book musicals have maintained their popularity to date. Oklahoma! (1943), for example, which was also written by Rogers and Hammerstein owes its critical fame to the manner in which the music, lyrics, story and choreography fit together seamlessly.
In Changing Generations, the music, which was written by Susan Gacukia and Joy Mboya, set the tone and pace of the entire performance and could make good sales if recorded as a cast album, with songs like Left Out in the Cold which was brilliantly performed by Andrew Muthure who played the orphanage director, Mr Kariuki.
The cost of hiring lapel microphones (which I painfully remember) weighed against the income lost as a result of a large part of the house being taken up by the band, may have pitched the director George Mungai and his team into the precarious balance between profits and creativity.
This may explain why the singing on stage was amplified by use of three microphones suspended from the loft at centre stage right, centre stage and centre stage left.
This meant limited movement of the cast and ineffective use of stage space. Ideally, the choreography, which is integral to the acting, should involve intricate floor patterns with actors moving around, interacting with each other and using the set. However, for the most part, the cast sang lined up, facing the audience, which gave the overall effect of a music concert rather than musical theatre.
In addition, because of the limited space on the Phoenix stage, which is no fault of the creative team, the backup vocalists, were at the back of the auditorium with the band while they would have formed the chorus line, which is the group of dancers on stage, whose synchronised routines and backup vocals give musical theatre its strength.
Perhaps it was this limitation in space and other resources that led to what I inferred to be the idea that the performance was actually a rehearsal. I recognise the attempt at innovation to circumvent these challenges but the result was a potentially good musical marred by the presence of decoration clutter on the stage throughout the entire performance.
Changing generations, with its catching, meaningful, well-arranged music and plot may possibly be one of Phoenix Players greatest legacies, although ironically, Phoenix theatre does not have a stage big enough for it and this has cost the musical it’s ‘oomph’.
© Anne Manyara 2011