Review: Sousatzka (Teatro Proscenium/Garth Drabinsky)

Photo of Jordan Barrow and Victoria Clarke in SousatzkaGarth 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.

Details:

  • 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

12 thoughts on “Review: Sousatzka (Teatro Proscenium/Garth Drabinsky)”

  1. I agree completely. It’s like 3 different shows crammed together, and none of them are compelling enough. This is a perfect example of overproduction, with producers having more control than the director.

  2. I found myself bored and uninterested. Interesting enough, anyone giving a truly objective opinion (as much as could be) is saying the exact same things so I won’t regurgitate the above thoughts with my own words. If given a choice between spending a heap of money on Sousatzka or a Raptors game, take the sporting even, at least it will be action-filled and having your emotions swaying up and down.

    1. Wayne,
      I take exception to two of your criticisms of Sousatzka. That you actually believe that the images of Holocaust victims projected throughout the theatre is exploitive tells me you are unaware or ignorant of the enormity of the scourge that wiped out 6 million Jewish people. Sousatzka survivied but her family members were among those who did not. The song “The Life I Left Behind,” that she sings reveals that buried past. To get a better understanding of what is real, I suggest you attend a Holocaust Survivor testimony at Holocaust Education week in Toronto. That you found her piece as well as Themba’s mother pouring out her heart in “Song of the Child” unmoving suggests that perhaps you should cut the medication that leaves your affect and emotional response so flat.

      1. Frankly, your suggestion that I’m unaware of the holocaust is absurd and condescending. My criticism of that scene focused on the fact that I think it’s cheap and manipulative to exploit images from a tragedy like the holocaust to provoke an emotional response from the audience instead of using good writing to create characters you would actually care about without needing to resort to such cheap tricks.

        Likewise, Themba’s mother Xholiswa is so poorly sketched out as a character that she’s basically just an iteration of the “anguished African mother” trope so her big Act I solo, Song of the Child, becomes a hackneyed cliché: loud and maudlin but meaningless. I remained unaffected because I saw through the bad writing despite the overblown emotion of the piece.

        1. And I counter that by saying that there are many theatre goers who could benefit from these exact “cheap tricks” to make them aware of the world that Sousatzka came from.

          1. He is so on point Phyllis. The cast brought many of these same points up to Management and they were dismissed. Read the reviews everywhere – sad reality is, this show needs to be rewritten and a strong, cohesive story line needs to be created. Even Themba is way underdeveloped as a character. Great cast unfortunately has to reap the the horrible reviews for closed eyes by producer and investors.

  3. Billy Elliott meets The Lion King. You cannot write a believable musical using creative who’ve never experienced any of the things the musical is trying to say. A small little novel has been given a bloated production, The Soweto story line was not in the book not the film. Someone saw an opportunity to make the musical relevant, but buried the importance of its story under a tonne of technical stuff. If not for Victoria Clark, the production would have been a total bust.

  4. It is very interesting that in all of the reviews there is little materiality of opinion. For instance, there is no doubt that Xholiswa’s role is the most developed and carries a large load along with Victoria Clark. Yet only one or two of the reviews of the piece highlight that.

    The reviews of the musical ironically seem as racially and personally influenced as the piece brings to light as the struggle of a rainbow nation and the bringing together of diversity.

    While there is some work to be done to tighten this musical — it has the core of delivering a message, and reminder of history’s lessons, that the United States and world desperately needs to be reminded of at this time as refugees across the face of the globe are scattered, exploited, and ignored.

    1. You must be cast or family. You cant look at this mess of a show and say there is only a ‘little’ work to be done. Even the shoes own cast has confronted Garth about the show’s major issues with no real response.

  5. I am neither cast nor family. And who ever said little — I said ‘some’. Do you know the definition of some. Your reviews are as ignorant as your innuendos and your apparent grudge. You are definitely putting me to sleep with the dullness of your mind. I am quickly seeing why this piece is simply over your head.

    As for Western-Union, while I appreciate the message, the study of art repeatedly reveals the value it plays in carrying messages across cultures and generations.

    I would love to see this piece tightened up and the depths of one of the two stories (not three; think here people “it will play through you” … It’s not about the piano player it’s about the music of his life telling and shining a light on a message of apartheid) brought to a deeper resonance and message. As well as simplified for the average North American. I believe the complexity of this piece would meet entirely different reviews in a non-egocentric North America. However, I do agree that some of the changes need to entail a much simpler story line for today’s common intellect.

    In speaking with a number of people after I saw the piece, I found it peculiar that about 20% got it, about 60% called it confusing, and 20% just plain didn’t care for it.

    Question for you: if this was your canvas which of the two stories would you hone in on? And what would be ‘some’ of the core vignettes, songs, scenes you would do away with and which would you keep to make that story resonate.

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