If sheer exuberance could carry the day, “Kat and the Kings” might sail right into the Broadway history books powered by delightfully buoyant performances from its (mostly) young South African cast. The loose-limbed, limber-voiced kids who animate the stage in this story of the rise and fall of a doo-wop group in 1950s Cape Town are giving the most infectiously joyous performances in town. That may not be sufficient, however, to win the show a sizable audience in the high-stakes Broadway environment. For even the cast’s ingratiating talents cannot disguise the faults of this eager-to-please but rather deflatingly inconsequential show.
The musical tells the fictional story of the Cavalla Kings, a vocal quartet who style themselves after the great early R&B-rock groups: the Platters, the Ink Spots, the Coasters. Book writer and lyricist David Kramer and composer Taliep Peterson loosely based the show on the life of Salie Daniels, the leader of a similar singing group who performed the role of the elder Kat Diamond, the show’s narrator, in previous runs in Cape Town and London. Sadly, Daniels died in July, and while his replacement, Terry Hector, is entirely winning in the role, one suspects Daniels’ personal connection to the material gave the show some grounding gravitas that is sorely missing from its cheerily simplistic book and lyrics.
The tale begins with Hector’s Kat, now a shoeshine man in 1999 Cape Town, recalling with nostalgia the beginnings of the Cavalla Kings. His younger self, played with innocently sexy panache by Jody J. Abrahams, rises beside him on Saul Radomsky’s bare-bones set, and together they narrate a saga that hits many of the usual rags-to-riches touchstones, albeit with a distinctive historical backdrop (apartheid) that occasionally impinges on the youthful showbiz high jinks. (In both structure and substance, “Kat and the Kings” bears an odd resemblance to last season’s Broadway flop “Band in Berlin,” another musical about a vocal harmony group undone by racism.)
Dazzled by the sounds of American music, Kat recruits pals Bingo (Loukmaan Adams) and Ballie (Junaid Booysen) to share his dream of crooning his way into the hearts of girls everywhere. Magoo (Alistair Izobell), a goofy boy from a tonier neighborhood, fills out the quartet, and his sister Lucy (Kim Louis) soon becomes the group’s songwriter, guest vocalist and fashion consultant.
Although their skin colors vary, all of the performers are classified as “colored” under South Africa’s racist policies. But in District 6, the only Cape Town neighborhood where races were allowed to mix, the Kings soon become celebrities, performing to adoring audiences at local hot spots and snagging a recording contract before personal conflicts and the government’s tragic destruction of District 6 end their brief career.
The show is light on character, historical context and plot — the narration sometimes seems an afterthought — and ultimately seeks to get by on sweet sensation as the second act turns into a concert with what seems like a good half-hour of encores. Perhaps a director other than book writer-lyricist Kramer might have shaped the show with more precision and finesse.
Thus the musical is mostly music, and much of it is charming. Peterson and Kramer’s songs are catchy pastiches in the style of the times, when R&B and rock ‘n’ roll were near neighbors. Some tunes are vaguely used to tell the story, but most just allow the boys (and girl) to unleash their spirited talents in homage to a musical genre that retains its toe-tapping appeal. Indeed, the energy of the performers inspires something close to awe: with milewide grins, legs seemingly made of rubber and springs, and hips that swivel as smoothly as water going down a drain, the boys, in Radomsky’s bright, color-coordinated suits, sometimes seem more like animated characters from a Saturday morning cartoon than live human beings.
Alas, it’s not just the performers’ seemingly superhuman athleticism that evokes the comparison, for Kramer’s book and lyrics never rise beyond a genial juvenility that soon palls. Jokes tend to center on teen-age razzing about girls and cars and the occasional bodily function (“You’ve got to look smart/And not like a fart/If you want to break hearts …” runs a too-typical lyric).
Although Kat is perfunctorily pegged as a gambler, Bingo a lady-killer, Ballie a sweetheart and Magoo a goof, the boys never really come across as sharply defined people living in an all too terribly specific place and time. It’s not necessarily the lack of attention to the politically charged environment that harms the show, but its generally too-sophomoric spirit.
But if the show’s structure and level of sophistication leave something to be desired, its cast surely doesn’t. In addition to being agile, physically witty performers, they’re supremely smooth and charismatic singers, with each of the Kings being given a chance to lead a solo. And Hector proves himself nearly their match when he joins the young Kings for several songs.
As the show’s narration winds up, the young Kat looks to the elder and expresses a sad dismay at his future, “I can’t believe this is what happens to me.” It’s a small moment of emotion that is erased quickly by the musical’s long finale, in which the audience is exhorted repeatedly to join the fun by singing and clapping along. There’s a strange dislocation involved that’s at the heart of the musical’s disappointment: Even as it seeks to honor the memory of a particular time and place, “Kat and the Kings” keeps urging you to forget everything but the bliss of a passionately sung song.