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LEOPARD SKIN (article first published : 2002-09-4)

Two brand-new homegrown Durban musicals have opened within the space of three days – Far from the Madding Crowd in the Playhouse Opera and Leopard Skin at Kwasuka Theatre - although strictly speaking Leopard Skin had its premiere at the NOT Festival all of two months ago.

Producer Terry Rosenberg came up with the basic concept and then commissioned award-winning playwright Aldo Brincat to write the script.

Derek O’Toole, who also designed the effective set, is credible and relaxed as David, a political exile who fled with his Zulu wife Sankile (played with cool elegance by Shannon Kenny) to Italy 20 years previously.

Leaving her and his teenage son Hugo (nicely played with consistency by Grant Jasmin– watch him!), he returns to his beloved homeland to find that he has become disconnected from issues that once burned a fire within him. Added to that is a growing estrangement from his wife who is becoming involved with an art dealer called Romano (Patrick Kenny as a smooth Italian).

His disillusionment is gradually submerged by a return to his old sense of fervour by Maria (Nondumiso Tembe), the daughter of an old activist friend who runs a shelter for orphaned and abandoned children.

Slim as a reed but a powerhouse of talent, the slender Nondumiso Tembe shines as Maria. Expressive, sensitive and vocally adept, she’s got fire and spunk and generated much of the interest in the play. She also managed to subdue her natural American accent and sound positively homegrown!

The musical score is a collaboration between Alan Judd, Terry Rosenberg and Mike Pilot and features 11 songs, all distinctive by their African characteristics and rhythm as well as a strong jazz and bluesy feel. These enjoyable compositions are safe in the extremely capable hands of Melvyn Peters at the piano, Alan Bowen on percussion and Alan Judd on guitar. Stacey Taylor, who will be remembered for her performance in Piaf at Kwasuka, provides back-up vocals and gets to sing a good solo number. Pity there weren’t more, she is a pleasure to look at and to listen to.

Director Aldo Brincat seats his cast at the side of the stage when they are not in a scene which was a nice move to keep them involved in the action from the sidelines. I had a problem with the audiovisual inserts which tended to be a bit distracting. Apart from the scene with Grant Jasmin which worked well, they either needed to be expanded and more pointed or lost altogether.

Voice projection is my major hobby horse and while I understand the use of microphones when working with a strong musical backing group, Kwasuka’s acoustics are perfect and it’s always a little worrying to find some cast members not actively using the basic amount of voice projection required for speech in this intimate venue.

Musical highlights were Precious sung by Shannon, Stomp, Packing Up (“Packing up and shipping out is like a national sport”) and We are the Women of the World from Shannon and Ndumiso.

Leopard Skin offers an enjoyable evening of original new music and the opportunity to celebrate a new work which combines issues like the struggle, exiles, AIDS and reconciliation into a legitimate theatrical format. I would, however, like to see the beginning and ends reworked. The storyline takes too long to get established and the conclusion is insufficiently defined.

CD’s of the music are on sale in the foyer for R100. Running an hour and a half without an interval, Leopard Skin has performances at the Kwasuka Theatre from September 3 to 15 and you’d better book to see it if you want to catch Nondumiso Tembe. Soon she’ll be off to the USA as she has just taken up a scholarship at an arts institution on Broadway. Book at Computicket or at the door. – Caroline Smart




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