Garth Drabinsky may have to wait a while longer before redeeming himself with patrons and colleagues. The infamous producer’s supposed comeback after his conviction of fraud and forgery in 2009, “Sousatzka” assembles an impressive amount of talent but ends up overwhelmed by plot lines, disparate music styles and dated racial representations. The story of an esteemed piano teacher and the prodigy pupil who escaped from apartheid-era South Africa with his activist mother, the musical is currently tageting a Broadway transfer this fall. But this trial run in Toronto, where the show opened March 23, raises serious concern about its viability.
From the start, “Sousatzka” caught the theater industry’s attention for a few reasons. First, there was the unconventional title, named after its source material — the little-known 1962 novel by Bernice Rubens, “Madame Sousatzka.” There was also its star, Tony Award-winner Victoria Clark (“The Light in the Piazza,” “Gigi,” “Cinderella,” “Sister Act”) taking the title role. The composer and lyricist team of Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire added to the buzz, as did the timely subject matter of political refugees, trauma and belonging.
But the biggest attention-getter was the mastermind behind it all, former Livent CEO Drabinksy, who conceived of the musical adaptation, continued working on it while serving 17 months in prison, attended every rehearsal and weighed in on all major artistic decisions. Speculation about his potential return to Broadway — after memorable shows like “Kiss of a Spider Woman,” “Ragtime,” and “Sunset Boulevard” — accompanied “Sousatzka” throughout its creation.
In its Toronto debut, however, “Sousatzka” is at best an over-produced, overly-complicated combination of plot, genres, technical elements and emotional tone. At worst, it’s an offensive and tone-deaf portrayal of South African politics and people, and so emotionally manipulative that feels as if it’s decades behind the times.
Luckily, when the content falters, the material is carried forward by the raw talent of its 47 performers — specifically the captivating Clark as Sousatzka, a Holocaust-haunted woman who never reached her full potential as a musician and now clings to her students for meaning; and Montego Glover (“Memphis”), giving a powerful performance as Xholiswa Khenketha, a former anti-apartheid activist and the mother of a gifted piano prodigy she’s worried will become assimilated into London culture. The cast’s energy and dedication to lift up the production through sheer force of will and talent is what earned a standing ovation on opening night.
Packing a novel’s worth of action into a musical, even one that’s two and a half hours plus an intermission, is a tricky task. The story of “Sousatzka” spans Soweto during apartheid, Warsaw during the Holocaust and 1980’s London — and such a wide scope means that all of these periods get surface-level treatment and melodramatic stereotypes.
A flashback in which young Sousatzka (Eryn LeCroy) is raped feels particularly gratuitous, but it’s the musical’s depiction of its South African characters that is unignorably flawed. Though South African composer Lebo M (known for his work on “The Lion King”) contributes some of the best music in “Sousatzka,” it comes off as an afterthought to the Maltby and Shire score, which drives the story forward mostly through uninspiring ballads and arbitrary comedic songs, including the inexplicable trip that piano prodigy Themba (Jordan Barrow) takes with his new friend Jenny (Sara Jean Ford) to a downtown London nightclub.
Meanwhile, the black performers in the cast, save for the few named characters, all appear as an indistinguishable mass whose only purpose is to dance and belt the word “Africa!” The racial politics in “Sousatzka” are shallow enough that the phrase “Imagine the rainbow nation and the dream will start” could be considered an appropriate encapsulation of the show’s message.
Drabinsky was right about one thing: A story about a Holocaust survivor and an apartheid survivor bonding through music is certainly one worth exploring. But this “Sousatzka” doesn’t seem the best way to do it.