Delivering songs demanding freedom not only for the characters but the whole country under apartheid, the impassioned cast of the new musical “Mandela” (now premiering at the Young Vic in London) perform with invigorating sincerity. Their full-throated singing is terrific. But telling the story of how one man’s personal and political stand changed South Africa forever requires a lot more than generic ballads and anthems of hopes and dreams. And while thinness of script has rarely been a bar to bio-musical success, in something as potentially vital as this, the woefully limp writing only serves to prove one thing: It’s possible to drown in good intentions.

It’s clear from the over-generalized uplift of the boisterous, foot-stamping opening number that the show is going to be low on specifics. And, to be fair, with a story that encompasses everything from Nelson Mandela’s early activism through the tragedy of his imprisonment to the triumph of his release after 27 appalling years, it was always going to be tough to deal in detail. But while a celebration of the man is hugely welcome, it’s depressing that the show could only be enlightening to those entering the theater knowing nothing of his trajectory.

Yet even newcomers are likely to be left short-changed by writer Laiona Michelle’s explanatory yet superficial book, whose snapshot scenes almost always serve as little more than (often lumpen) exposition plus song cues, proceeding from one story staging post to the next with, for the most part, “I feel/I want” songs attached. 

Shorn of specifics, the true sentiment of Mandela’s extraordinary story turns to sentimentality, as when his daughters sing a sweet song about growing up without their father (shades of the more cleverly allusive “Little Lamb” from “Gypsy.”) Or when Winnie (defiant Danielle Fiamanya) dreams of a future with a place for her people in a ballad over a rippling acoustic guitar and a lyric not a million miles from “Somewhere” from “West Side Story.”

Without anchoring detail, the effect is both musically and dramatically unmemorable, none of which is the fault of the cast. Michael Luwoye, a former Hamilton on Broadway, exudes all the weight, gravitas and defiance of Mandela with ease. He is implacable – although, arguably, his unwavering goodness makes him difficult to immortalize in song. In theory, there’s more potential in Winnie but while, very late in the day, the musical briefly addresses her much more conflicted political history and her breaking faith with her husband, the potentially fascinating complexities of her character and her relationship are stated and then promptly skated over.

There are, of course, depictions of the horrific violence and prejudice that stalked the nation and led to the uprisings, not least the early scene of the horrifying 1960 Sharpeville massacre in which police opened fire on a peaceful protest, killing 69 people and injuring 180 more. But even there, the staging by director Schele Williams (“The Notebook”) is routine when it needs to be powerfully imaginative.

With the exception of the compassionless white politicians in dark suits, the costumes are a riot of russets, oranges and browns that connect them to the earth tones of the bland set design, which puts a proscenium arch into the versatile Young Vic space, strongly suggesting the production is eyeing further life. To succeed, it’s going to need much more than production tweaks. But that seems unlikely to happen, since the production is not only condoned by but also produced by the Mandela family. The great man deserves something far more pithy and trenchant.

‘Mandela’ Review: New Musical Biography Drowns in Good Intentions

Young Vic, London; 426 seats; £61 ($75) top. Opened, Dec. 10, 2022; reviewed Dec. 12. Closing Feb. 4, 2023. Running time: 2 HOUR, 20 MIN.

  • Production: A production in proud partnership with the Mandela Family with Nandi Mandela, Luvuyo Madasa, Shaun Hurwitz, Ronen Zekry, Greg Dean Borowsky, Shaun Borowsky and Brian & Dayna Lee of a new musical with book by Laiona Michelle and music and lyrics by Greg Dean Borowsky and Shaun Borowsky.
  • Crew: Directed by Schele Williams, choreography, Gregory Maqom, musical direction, Sean Mayes. Sets, Hannah Beachler; costumes, Fay Fullerton; lighting Jon Clark; sound, Paul Gatehouse; musical supervisor, Benjamin Kwasi Burrell; additional music and lyrics, Bongi Duma; orchestrations, Sam Young; projcetions/video, Akhila Krishnan; production stage manager, Greg Shimmin.
  • Cast: Michael Luwoye, Danielle Fiamanya, Gregory Armand, Zion Battles, Earl Carpenter, Stewart Clarke, Hanna Dimtsu, Lerato Gwebu, Prudence Jezile, Akmed Junior Khemalai, Blue Makwana, Kayleigh McKnight, Posi Morakinyo, Sneziey Msomi, Nomfusi Ngonyama, Ryan O’Donnell, Adam Pearce, Botlhale Phora, Shiv Rabheru, Will Richardson, Leanne Robinson, Ntsikelelo Nicholas Vani.