Garth Drabinsky's new production explores the unifying power of music
Presented by Garth Drabinsky
Book by Craig Lucas
Music by David Shire
Lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr.
Based on the original novel Madame Sousatzka by Bernice Rubens
Controversial theatre producer Garth Drabinsky returns to the Toronto stage (after his conviction of fraud in 2009) with a new musical, Sousatzka, now playing at the Elgin Theatre. Based on the novel by Bernice Rubens, the ambitious show tells the story of a young musical prodigy, Themba (Jordan Barrow), torn between two powerul women from very different worlds: his mother, Xholiswa Khenketha (Montego Glover), a political refugee from South Africa, and his Polish piano teacher Madame Sousatzka (Victoria Clark), an eccentric with a tragic past of her own.
Set in London in 1982, the action follows Themba as he navigates his teacher's unconventional methods of instruction and finds his place amoung a misfit group of lodgers at Madame Sousatzka's house. He is welcomed into their family, and makes friends with an older sister figure, Jenny (Sara Jean Ford), who takes him out dancing and encourages him to go after his school crush—a dancer named Sarah (Virginia Preston). Being a normal teenager proves difficult for Themba, however, as he struggles to please both his piano teacher and his overprotective mother, while missing his father who is incarcerated back in South Africa. Ultimately, Mrs Khenketha and Mrs Sousatzka must find common ground and come together in support of Themba if he is to achieve his full potential.
Sousatzka connects the world of the Jewish diaspora from Eastern Europe and the struggles of the South African anti-Apartheid activists in exile with mixed results. While the characters are interesting, the plot is overcomplicated, moving back and forth in time and following multiple storylines, which makes it difficult to untangle. The music, too, feels disjointed as South African, Eastern European and classical music collide unevenly throughout the production. That being said, the show boasts strong performances from the ensemble, showcased in compelling numbers such as "Africa" and "Rainbow Nation."
Clark's stirring portrayal of Sousatzka stands out, and we are rooting for Barrow's Themba throughout. Sadly, their committed performances are not enough to save this flawed piece. The musical's important message is buried in a cluttered narrative and overall the production feels dated. Given time and a bit of extra polishing, the gem within may well shine—but at the moment it is still pretty rough.
Sousatzka runs until April 9, 2017 at the Elgin Theatre. Visit sousatzkamusical.com for more information and to buy tickets.