Johannesburg - A new musical that starts with promise splutters into a scrambled mess as it rambles across continents, losing its narrative along the way, and turning lead characters into bit players and jumbling its incoherent storylines.
At more than three hours with an interval, Calling Me Home is aptly named – after the first half, I was ready to go home, which is a shame as it squanders its potential.
The show has an impressive cast of women at its foundation: Lynelle Kenned, who most recently blew audiences away as Maria in West Side Story, is Grace; Zolani Mahola from Freshlyground is Lindiwe; and experienced musical theatre lead Samantha Peo is Isabella.
The story begins as Grace leaves her home in Africa to travel to the US, while her brother Nelson (the wonderfully talented Musanete Sakupwanya) goes to war. On the train, Grace meets Lindiwe, who has escaped an abusive marriage. So far, not too bad. There are two catchy numbers – Tomorrow and Fly With the Sun – that give Kenned and Mahola a chance to show off their incredible voices.
As Grace and Lindiwe climb off the boat in America, the foundation of Calling Me Home begins to crumble – a bizarre scene on the docks with a chorus of prostitutes is followed by an equally unnecessary scene with construction workers that should have set the scene for the arrival of Grace’s love interest, Rafael (Anthony Downing), but is instead incoherent and confusing.
Peo makes her entrance in the next scene, singing another of the musical’s few memorable songs, Handfuls of Dragonflies. Unfortunately, she has little to work with in terms of character, and ends up overdoing her lurch into drugs and desperation. It all feels a bit melodramatic.
Thrown into the mix is the local Russian – I think – gangster Ivan (Christiaan Snyman) and his shiny-suit-wearing sidekick Vladimir (Pierre van Heerden). Then there’s Ben (Michael McMeeking), who is in love with Isabella. Meanwhile, Lindiwe has all but vanished from the story line having – I think – fallen for Grace’s cousin.
There’s a scene in the first act during which Grace sings to Rafael the story of a great love affair, called Trail of Stars. The song and story are refreshingly coherent and I thought this was the hook for how love would win in the end. But it’s just a brief moment of clarity in the mash-up that is Calling Me Home. The next scene in a fish factory returns to the chaos.
After a 90-minute first act, the audience was expecting a shorter second half – which is customary – where all the bits left dangling in the first half are gathered up and arranged in neat happy endings.
It was not to be – there were another 90 minutes that appeared to be entirely unrelated to the first half.
Suddenly, there were West Side Story-esque battles between Rafael’s construction workers and Ivan’s gangsters, a murder, a hospital scene and a jail scene as Calling Me Home staggers painfully slowly to its unsatisfying ending, which, although, very welcome, arrives abruptly.
The creative team has done a good job with the sets, the animation and the wardrobe, which are highlights in an otherwise bewilderingly surreal night out. However, the choreography is, at best, ordinary.
This musical composed and produced by Alice Gillham and directed by Magdalene Minnaar (who makes her directorial debut) needs a ruthless editor and an experienced director to chop out the vanity scenes, to scrap superfluous characters and to rebuild the foundation. It also needs an intervention to lighten up the score and libretto.
Ticket information for Calling Me Home:
Calling Me Home runs at the Joburg Theatre until September 3. Tickets cost R135 to R370 and can be purchased from the theatre's website.
Production details and rating:
Director: Magdalene Minnaar
Starring: Zolani Mahola, Samantha Peo and Lynelle Kenned.