Garth Drabinsky brings Sousatzka – A New Musical to the Toronto stage
Sousatzka – A New Musical marks the return of embattled theatre impresario Garth Drabinsky. The producer has mustered a team of experienced writers and production designers, each with Broadway credits galore on their resumes, as well as a talented cast led by Tony Award-winning actors.
Sousatzka is making its world debut and playing a limited run in Toronto with hopes for a future run on Broadway. However, judging by what I saw of the show on opening night, I don’t think the show is ready for the Great White Way.
Based on the novel Madame Sousatzka by Welsh writer Bernice Rubens–which was also made into a little-known film starring Shirley MacLaine–the musical takes place in London in the early ‘80s and is about a young South African piano prodigy, Themba (Jordan Barrow), and his eccentric Polish piano teacher, Madame Sousatzka (Victoria Clarke). The boy’s relationship with his teacher creates a rift between him and his mother, Xholiswa (Montego Glover), a South African political exile.
At its core, Sousatzka is a story of two refugees, each haunted by childhood trauma, who find in each other what they each need to grow and move on. If the show had been a pared-down chamber musical with a cast of twelve or so, focused on developing depth in the characters while exploring their unique relationship, it may have worked.
Instead, Sousatzka is a megamusical-sized production with a cast of 47, clocking in at a run time close to three hours. I think the show tries to do too many things but ends up doing nothing particularly well.
The show is weighed down by a bloated script with too many extraneous secondary characters and production numbers that, while sometimes beautifully designed (credit to Graciela Daniele’s choreography), nonetheless lack compelling reasons to exist and feel shoehorned in. The end result is a show that I found overblown, unfocused, clunky and often tedious.
Firstly, I would have liked a greater degree of character development. Even the main characters are only sketched out in broad strokes that border on caricature. At intermission, my show-going companion summed it up nicely when she said, “I just don’t feel connected to any of it.”
For her part as Madame Sousatzka, Victoria Clarke shines through the somewhat lacklustre material she’s given to work with. Her performance is measured and sensitive, and she projects a depth to her character that isn’t actually there in the script. It’s easy to see why she’s such a lauded musical theatre actor.
For such a prominent character, Themba is underdeveloped. Other characters speak/sing about him more than he’s allowed to speak for himself. In some scenes, he serves as more of a prop; so much so that the staging sometimes has the other characters addressing an empty piano bench in his place.
This is a shame because I think Jordan Barrow is immensely talented, and has great presence and energy; if he were given the chance to carry more of the show, the result would have been more compelling.
It’s hard to invest in underdeveloped characters, and the writer attempts to compensate by adding lots of treacly moments in the second act; let’s just say a lot of people hug in the last 20 minutes.
Similarly, the show’s approach to showing the oppression of both Apartheid South Africa and Nazi-occupied Poland is heavy-handed to the point of being off-putting. Graphic historical images from the Anti-Apartheid demonstrations are projected on the stage at the beginning of the show and later portraits of holocaust victims are projected throughout the theatre. I definitely found those moments exploitative, like the director is trying to manipulate the audience into feeling big emotions that aren’t earned.
Though Sousatzka is a musical, I didn’t care for much of the music. I definitely think the ad copy oversold the “compelling fusion of South African, Eastern European, Classical, Jazz and Contemporary music,” and none of the songs really stuck out in my mind as particularly unique or memorable.
The South African choral arrangements by Lebo M. are the highlight of the score, but they’re few and fleeting, and in the context of the show are primarily used to lend the South Africans a one-dimensional sense of “otherness.”
While there are some good performances and eye-catching design elements, overall the disparate elements of Sousatzka never really came together to create a show that I would find worthwhile.
- Sousatzka – A New Musical is playing through April 9, 2017 at the Elgin Theatre (189 Yonge Street)
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00pm; Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2:00pm
- Tickets, $60 – $175, online at www.ticketmaster.ca, by phone 1-855-985-5000,
- or in person at the Elgin Theatre Box Office 189 Yonge Street.
Photo of Jordan Barrow and Victoria Clarke by Cylla von Tiedemann