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DIVAS TO A T (article first published : 1999-06-9)

Tonya Koendeman is five foot four with bright eyes and a wide generous smile, slim as a lathe with the energy of an atomic power station and a voice that has incredible power. Where on earth does she hide the source? Her torso doesn’t look as if it carries lungs large enough to cope with a less-than-average vocal ability, let alone the extraordinary force that she possesses

Lisa Bobbert, herself no slouch when it comes to energy, has directed Tonya in her latest one-woman show Divas to a T, the new production at the Langoustine Theatre by the Sea which runs until the end of the month.

The opening was slow and dramatic – much smoke and rippling music providing an intro into a slow-building and stirring rendering of There’s a Place for Us. Describing her divas as “slightly eccentric, slightly over the top and ever so melodramatic”, she then goes on to pay fitting tribute to great ladies of song such as Natalie Cole, Shirley Bassey, Celine Dion, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, Gloria Gaynor, Tina Turner, Miriam Makeba and Liza Minnelli. Her backing tracks (all except one) were excellent and a great joy to those of us that are so tired of the `Japanese drummer’ (electronic drum machine)!

With throw-away lines like “I don’t ever do anything nice and easy” this spunky singer can be as raunchy as the rest one minute and prissy or cheeky the next. Her movements are well-controlled and aimed at achieving the maximum dramatic effect. She appeared in various outfits such as a slinky gold brocade lamé number and a figure-hugging black dress with endless side splits and a revealing back feature. For My Heart Will Go On (from the movie Titanic), she was shrouded in a sequined cape with a cowl. Here the use of echo on the microphone, blue lighting and much smoke gave the song a subterranean feel as if the Titanic had sunk and she was singing to a lost love from under the sea.

She quickly crosses herself before attempting Miriam Makeba’s The Retreat Song but she need have no fear. It’s a pretty hot number despite her remarks “I have no idea what I’m singing” or “I’m working on the bum!” Unfortunately, the La Cage Aux Folles song I Am What I Am did not fare so well, which its unsympathetic backing track and erratic pace.

Bouncing back after interval with Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, Tonya kept up her fast pace. In fact, it was occasionally a little too fast verging on the unintelligible with the delightful Bette Midler number which tells the story of the inventor of the bra, Otto Titslinger, who was outdone by his arch rival Monsieur le Brassiere.

Tonya and Lisa have been friends since childhood and so the show reflects a good rapport between singer and director. However, I would have liked to have seen more variation in mood, with perhaps less belted numbers and more sensitive pieces as well as songs which would show Tonya’s talent for comedy.

But, I guess if you’ve got a voice that can rock the foundations of the Union Buildings in Pretoria from Durban North, then why not use it? In black waistcoat, hotpants, thigh-high black stockings and a bowler atop her impeccably neat hairstyle, Tonya closes the show with the person she impersonates best, Lisa Minnelli. Belting out numbers from Cabaret and the inevitable New York, Tonya certainly comes into her own with the Minnelli numbers and often the vocal likeness is quite astonishing.

The Langoustine Theatre by the Sea is vastly improved since its first show. With the ceiling painted in black and patrons now seated at smaller tables, the room has a more sophisticated and theatrical feel. And when they can get the sound desk in the right place so that the audience isn’t flattened with a blast of backing tracks that often tend to overshadow the singer – and with Tonya Koendeman, that’s some feat! – they’ll be firmly placed as a top supper theatre venue.

The show’s highly enjoyable and a sensible length, ending around 22h15.Tickets for Divas to a T are R85 and include a three-course meal with very generous helpings. To book phone 563-7324.


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