Sousatzka: towering performances in a hot mess musical
by DREW ROWSOME -Photos by Cylla Von Tiedemann
Somewhere in the creative process Madame Sousatzka became Sousatzka. At least they resisted putting an exclamation mark in the title. Sadly they also resisted getting to the heart of the material and, like so many other single-monikered musical events, Sousatzka somehow evolved into a big bloated hot mess.
There are incredible performances and some extraordinary singing, but tethered to middling songs and a book that is, to be charitable, overstuffed and mostly confusing, Sousatzka never becomes the rousing emotional experience it is meant to be. It begins excitingly as we are plunged into the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, but the energy dissipates as the overly complicated memory flashbacks intersect and interfere with the heart of the story.
The relationship between the piano prodigy, a very fine but underused when not behind the piano Jordan Barrow, and the teacher/muse Madame Sousatzka (Victoria Clark) is a fine little chamber musical that abounds with pithy sayings about art versus political activism, and the creation of art and the observation that "The mainstream is where the water is shallow." It is as if the writer, the usually vibrant Craig Lucas, was writing the reviews in advance.
Madame Sousatzka lives in a bohemian household in a bad part of town and the residents are introduced as, "We're crazy. But crazy cute, not mentally unstable." They then proceed to tell us how wacky and fun they are though Sousatzka never bothers to demonstrate this. Far too often as Sousatzka plods along, a character faces forward and sings - usually magnificently - exposition, description or insights the audience has already gleaned. Clark works hard and her voice is remarkable if disconcertingly operatic, and she does manage to pull a lovable character out of the scattered motivation she is given.
Then the larger themes are woven, or shoehorned, in. Apartheid is equated with the holocaust leading to one of the most bizarre special effects I've ever seen. It is meant to be a spectacular moment but it appears to have been cribbed from Disney World's Haunted Mansion. The big anthem "Rainbow Nation" comes out of nowhere and departs to the same place. A Christmas bell is an odd maguffin that is made a big fuss over and then, like the rainbow nation, disappears, never to be seen again. Perhaps it is just an awkward lead-in to Judy Kaye's big number. It is a damn good number, but what is a Christmas song, complete with risible snow effects, doing in a show about the Holocaust and apartheid?
Perhaps Kaye was contractually owed a solo number so one was written, or maybe there is just more commercial value in an original cast recording/future cabaret standard that doesn't try to rhyme Hanukkah or Kwanzaa. There are a few other head-scratchers. It looks like Nick Wyman's big number was cut - he is set up for a big music hall themed number that explores his otherwise non-visible penchant for drag. At least he seems to come out to Madame Sousatzka near the end, though no-one seems to know why, Or care. He then spends the rest of the show crying. Or maybe Wyman was just suddenly overwhelmed by what his role was reduced to.
A punk/new wave dance number is nostalgic hilarity (but must have been fun for the costume designer, Paul Tazewell (Hamilton, Side Show, Memphis, In the Heights) who is the only person involved who seems to have a sense of humour -the gowns in the salon scene are to die for!) leads to a ballet performance by an extraneous girlfriend (Virginia Preston) that features the chorus in African costumes bowing down to the white goddess . . . And that is not as deeply weird as the finale where poor Ryan Allen, who magnificently sang a full-throated if contextually puzzling "Rainbow Nation," is dispatched as either a shrouded corpse or an angel, and Madame Sousatzka gets her just reward in a heavy-handed scene - not even a musical number! - that only became a plot point somewhere in the second act. Even a rousing reprise of an African-flavoured number for the curtain call can't salvage the limpness.
However theatre buffs will not want to miss this version of Sousatzka before it is either radically revised for Broadway or quietly euthanized. Clark's performance will be one of those "I actually saw it!" cards to be played at dinner parties, and Montego Glover as the prodigy's mother brings down the house with an unforgettable performance of an unchoreographed and utterly forgettable song. And Sara Jean Ford looks great and gets some much-needed laughs as the slut with a heart of gold.
The lavishness of the sets is appealing when it isn't unintentionally comic (just how many sunrises can Africa have in only three, though it did seem longer, hours?), prone to squeekiness and verging on camp excess. Alas the earnestness, after all the Holocaust and apartheid are serious subjects and small "l" liberal triggers, makes the urge to giggle a deeply unsettling experience. Sousatzka was to be producer Garth Drabinsky's big comeback (his fourth so far) and his love of theatre is not in question. But as Madame Sousatzka sings, and reprises, and reprises, "The only way love lasts forever, let go."
Someone has invested a lot of money in Sousatzka. Hopefully there is some cash left, and ruthless revisions and rewrites will get Sousatzka to Broadway or at least to the end of its run. And maybe there will even be enough to purchase, or preferably earn, an exclamation mark for the end of the title.