(This review appeared in The East African 28th December 2013 – 3rd January 2014 under the title The Musical That Never Was)
“Let’s sing our way out of this” is a quote attributed to Mexican poet Isabel Fraire but I think these are the words that inspired Kenya at 50, Phoenix Player’s end-of-year musical, which I watched on Wednesday 4th December.
The performance, described on the poster as an “original musical”, is supposed to be a musical history of Kenya taking us from the days “before there was a flag” to the present day. It is performed by talented and energetic artists- who would probably have a thriving career in the music industry- but it is not musical theatre.
Musical theatre is a form of theatre that combines music, drama and dance in equal measure while as the Phoenix production is simply a concert that would have been better suited for any of the Jamhuri Day parties that we are just recovering from.
True, it has music and dance and the songs are sung with dramatic expression. In between the songs, the performers walk to a bar to the left of the stage where there is a pretend barman serving drinks. They do some sketches and also take turns doing little monologues titled “what I think of Kenya” some of which are poetic and nostalgic.
Karim Nathoo gives his perspective of Kenya as a fourth-generation Indian, describing freshness and eagerness of Monday mornings in Nairobi. Ken Kibet stresses the importance of unity in Kenya, saying that when he was born, his mother did not say, “Wow, another Kalenjin.” She simply said, “Wow, my son.”
But these pieces do not qualify as drama because drama needs characters, plot and above all, conflict, none of which were existent in this production.
Moreover, the overall programme did not narrate the history of Kenya even by a far stretch. The back wall of the stage was lined with photographs of political heroes and icons like Dedan Kimathi, Pio Gama Pinto, Tom Mboya, Kenneth Matiba and Martin Shikuku but the choice of songs scarcely captured the spirit of the people in the photos. There was neither a political nor a social history and more poignantly, there wasn’t even a history of Kenyan popular music.
Two traditional folk songs were performed at the start and thereafter followed a juxtaposition of numbers from such musicians as Fadhili Williams, Them Mushrooms and Issah Mmari (E-Sir) without a clear sense of moving from one musical genre to the next or even one historical era to the next.
The long and short of it is that Phoenix Players did not have a musical this year. The director, Tash Mitambo and musical director, Charles Ouda probably thought, “let’s put on a musical concert and hope that no one will notice”.
Well, we did. And I think I speak for Nairobi theatregoers when I say that we’re disappointed, seeing as the Phoenix end-of-year musicals had been for a long time the highlight of Nairobi’s theatre scene. The last Phoenix musical was an adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance in 2011, under the direction of George Mungai and Kaz as musical director.
© Anne Manyara 2014