Composed and written by Jean-Pierre Hadida, with co-author Alicia Sebrien, Madiba The Musical is not simply a story about a great man; it also examines the impact of a repressive system on ordinary people and deftly summarises Winnie Mandela as a driving force behind her husband’s publicity.
The musical starts with the Narrator (David Dennis) explaining that a sketchbook is central to the story, showing the world in black and white. Nelson Mandela (played superbly by Perci Moeketski) is revealed only at the end of the opening number with a spotlight.
Fictional characters are also introduced to provide a love interest and further illustrate political tensions. The couple confronting various forms of racism are Helena, the daughter of racist officer Peter van Leden, and William Zulu (Barry Conrad), the son of Sam Onotou (Tim Omaji) Mandela’s fellow prisoner who becomes an activist after his release.
It was surprising to see representations of how other prisoners and blacks resented Mandela and were angry because he wasn’t being abused as other prisoners were. This may have been glossed over to a quick resolution with noble words, but I believe a point was made that it wasn’t support and love all the time for Mandela. At one stage, Mandela is seen being gracefully served water, while Sam is denied water and, in fact, taken to center stage for a beating. The beating wasn’t choreographed particularly well, but I found it moving nevertheless.
Sometimes, the stage was arranged in a segregated fashion: black performers on one side, white performers on the other. Additionally, black cast members’ costumes were more diverse and vibrant while whites’ were typically more uniform and subdued. During the Transition in Act 1, the Peter van Leden character was “aged” on screen via updating chalk drawings, and Alex Thompson, the actor playing “Young Peter”, was rotated to be replaced mid-song by Blake Erickson in a higher-ranking outfit.
A highlight of the performance was the amazing acrobatic skill of the performers, perhaps most notably those of the David Denis and ensemble member Sophia Laryea. Another was the fantastic singing; it’s hard to single any one out, but Ruva Ngwenya as Winnie Mandela impressed with her powerful voice.
Some will find this a sanitised version of apartheid with unmemorable tunes and lyrics. I wasn’t sure about the selection of so many piano-heavy pieces, but my companion was amazed at how much music was generated by the three backstage musicians, who were occasionally made visible while remaining behind the backdrop.
“Rainbow Nation” could have seen this performance end on an incredibly high note – uplifting, fun, and energetic. But wait, there was more, wherein a reveal tied characters and the story together and performers left the stage to energise the crowd from the aisles near the stage.
Despite certain weaknesses in the work, there was no doubt about the commitment of the cast. And it’s hard to argue with a standing ovation.
MADIBA The Musical: A Celebration of Nelson Mandela was reviewed at the Comedy Theatre on October 3,2018. Anna Hawthorne was there for Classic Melbourne accompanied by John McBride. This is an edited version of their notes.