Sophiatown style: Lerato Mvelase plays the role of Petal, a woman in love with boxer Ezekiel ‘King Kong’ Dlamini. Picture: DANIEL MANNERS
Sophiatown style: Lerato Mvelase plays the role of Petal, a woman in love with boxer Ezekiel ‘King Kong’ Dlamini. Picture: DANIEL MANNERS

The curtain finally slid open for King Kong, the iconic South African musical.

On the opening night of the iconic South African musical King Kong at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, the carpet was red as blood.

The crowd resembled something that hardly comes out these days — the rainbow.

Inside the theatre, selfies were snapped, statuses were updated and all social ceremonies were concluded before the curtain rose.

Everyone’s eyes were fixed forward, waiting for a cast member to emerge on the stage. Instead, the opening scene popped up from somewhere along the rows of seats. A group of schoolboys in uniform argued, before starting a brawl. The scene set the pace and presented an angle for the narration of the story.

The musical is a reimagination of the life of boxing champion Ezekiel "King Kong" Dlamini’s life, whose rise to glory was as hard as his fall from it. It is the tale of a black life, lived and wasted in apartheid SA.

The original all-African jazz opera became a runaway success in the late 1950s, locally and internationally, and the careers of vocalist Miriam Makeba, trombonist Hugh Masekela and others were elevated to world stardom.

In the latest iteration, Andile Gumbi is in the title role and Nondumiso Tembe portrays the soulful and flirtatious shebeen queen Joyce. Sne Dladla, who plays the character Pops – the narrator, judge, ring announcer, other characters — attempted to "steal" the show.

It was Sophiatown all right, with gangsters dressed in suits and quick to swing the blade. Urbanised natives with style and taste. A cut-and-paste of Harlem, if you like.

The boxing fight scenes were performed in Matrix slow-motion style and could have been sold as a theatre production on their own. They were executed with a high degree of guile and precision; the delivery fully exploited the magical capabilities of theatre.

The interval did little to interrupt the flow. Tshamano Sebe as Jack, a slick and streetwise boxing trainer and promoter, was the real deal.

Lerato Mvelase also shone as Petal, a woman in love with the champ and totally oblivious of their incompatibility.

Fugard Theatre owner and producer Eric Abraham and his team didn’t just dust off a classic. While authenticity is always the safest bet, the adjustments made to the original script make the production more accessible.

In the original piece, a gumboot dance sequence was included for overseas audiences. The latest incarnation could have done without a traditional dance routine — although it is executed with enthusiasm, it seems out of place.

Look out for the bus stop scene, where a community puts its sorrows to melody.

The cast then forms a queue under a sign marked Native Bus Stop, a scene that evokes painful memories of the past.

The schoolboys in the opening scene are incorporated into the tale as it is being narrated to them, which is the fictional device that places the musical in the present while making reference to the past.

King Kong is at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town until September 2, at the Mandela Theatre in Johannesburg from September 12 to October 8.

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