Garth Drabinsky, the theatrical producer who gave Ragtime to the world— and who was subsequently sent to prison for fraud and forgery —, is making a comeback of sorts with this new musical based on the novel Madame Sousatzka by Bernice Rubens (which was already used as the basis for a 1988 John Schlesinger movie starring Shirley MacLaine).
I haven’t read the novel, but I did watch the movie on my flight to Toronto. If the script of the movie can rightly be described as underwritten, Craig Lucas’s book for this new musical goes squarely in the opposite direction by providing tons of background and back stories for the characters. As a result, the storytelling is a bit tedious and not all of the numerous flashbacks sit well within the context of the current drama.
If I were a show doctor, I would advise strongly to choose between the back story of Madame Sousatzka — a Polish survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto — and that of her wunderkind piano pupil, Themba — a South-African boy whose father is in jail for leading protests against the apartheid and whose mother had to flee the country when he was a young boy. The libretto of the musical ends up being cluttered by such an overload of background and good sentiments.
The score, by Broadway greats David Shire (music) and Richard Maltby, Jr. (lyrics), has its moments, especially some of the songs written for the title character, like the lovely “The Life I Left Behind.” The Zulu-inspired songs, on the other hand, didn’t do much for me — some of them sounded a little bit too much like left-overs from The Lion King.
Victoria Clark is wonderful as Madame Sousatzka. I wish Maltby & Shire hadn’t felt they had to include so many high notes in her songs — sure, she has a nearly operatic soprano voice, but I think she sounds better when she comes back down to her lower register. Newcomer Jordan Barrow is quite charismatic as her pupil. One can only lament that the legendary Judy Kaye has so little to do — that is a tragic waste of her talent.
Directed by Adrian Noble. Choreography by Graciela Daniele. Music Director: Brad Haak. With Victoria Clark, Montego Glover, Jordan Barrow, Judy Kaye, …