There was a time when successful musical revues offered fine new songs, witty and satirical sketches, and an exciting mix of stars and new faces. But more and more they have turned into grab bags, nostalgia trips, perfunctory surveys of a particular composer’s or lyricist’s and-then-I-wrotes (not a bad thing in itself, but usually too facile and uninventive); in other words, easily put together stuff for undemanding audiences.
When such hybrids, neither book musicals nor quite revues, fail, as many of them have in recent years, you can, unless you invested in them, shrug it off. But when material that is at best mediocre and at worst pitiful turns into a Broadway hit – think Smokey Joe’s Cafe or It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues – you wonder what is left of our once-cherished sophisticated humor, our once-vaunted discriminating palate, our once-thriving theatrical culture.
Now we get Kat and the Kings, touted as London’s 1999 Olivier-winning Best New Musical, which is neither new nor a musical and is light miles away from best. It is a South African quasi-revue with the sorriest excuse for a plot slapped onto it. It’s the same hoary story of five young people getting together as a song-and-dance group, climbing the ladder to success, then breaking up for societal or personal reasons, as seen through the reminiscences of a former member now fallen on hard times. The only difference is that these young performers were Coloreds – South Africa’s racial in-betweens, neither white nor black – in the shadow of apartheid, though this is relatively downplayed.
What we get from the book and lyrics by David Kramer (who also directed) and the music and arrangements of Taliep Petersen is fifties doo-wop and rock and roll, absorbed from American groups and filtered through Durban and Cape Town sensibilities. But if a leopard cannot change its spots, neither can you change your Ink Spots with impunity. The six able performers of Kat and the Kings do just about everything for their material except the impossible: salvage it.
Perhaps in Cape Town this nostalgia for the second-hand works; perhaps in England, starved for musicals, this lame excuse for one can limp into the winners’ circle. But do we need it here? It includes a novelty (!) number with dancing skeletons; like them, the show should remain unexhumed. Let us commend the cast: Terry Hector, Kim Louis, Jody J. Abrahams, Loukmaan Adams, and Junaid Booysen. But Alistair Izobell is even better: with a body made of rubber, a face made of quicksilver, and a voice that climbs the octaves like a mountain goat the rocks. This physically elastic and histrionically pliable performer is as acrobatic on a stage as an aerialist under the big top.