I don’t recall any other time when I’ve cried throughout an entire performance.
Considering the amount of negative reception this show has received since its opening, other reviewers may see me as emotionally manipulated. I, on the other hand, believe there are more layers and nuances than they give this production credit for.
Garth Drabinsky’s Sousatzka tells a poignant story about an emerging piano phenomenon in 1982 London, England named Themba Khenketha (Jordan Barrow) who is trying to discover his identity; all while conflicted between the viewpoints of two important women in his life: his anti-apartheid activist mother Xholiswa (Montego Glover) and his Holocaust survivor piano instructor Madame Sousatzka (Victoria Clark).
The score by Richard Maltby and David Shire and the projections by Jonathan Driscoll, for the most part, add a more realistic atmosphere and give us ear-pleasing insight into these characters’ lives, particularly when showing us the Khenkethas’ and Sousatzka’s backstories. Many critics have said that the character development is surface-level because of these overlaps, and that Drabinsky should have either told the story of a piano instructor and her pupil straight, or a historical recount of the South African apartheid and the Holocaust in Poland. The purpose these flashbacks serve is to provide context as to where these individuals are coming from, what they’ve gone through, and why they hold to certain beliefs, attitudes and feelings toward heavy subject matter – especially things only a parent can understand. I hardly consider that surface-level characterization.
This is especially true of the interactions between two of the strongest performers in the musical, Glover and Clark. They both present their cases that are neither right nor wrong through sharp and thought-provoking dialogue. Drabinsky is rather bold in attempting to showcase this in a time where it appears as though storytellers emphasize one side of an argument without really understanding the other.
I also disagree with others who say that Themba is entirely passive and underdeveloped. It is true that the story isn’t really his, because it is not his character that is most in need of change; it is Xholiswa and Sousatzka that go through an arc in discovering how similar they truly are and learning to consider new perspectives. But that doesn’t mean Themba isn’t a growing teenager struggling with his desires and aspirations, and Barrow depicts this struggle well. He can be firm when he’s had enough of others’ opinions, but he also faces his fair share of tumultuous moments.
There are two interrelated shortcomings, however, that I agree with other critics on. First, the show is definitely overambitious. It’s not difficult to follow the storyline, but it seems as though the cast doesn’t catch a break in between many of the song sequences, particularly during the flashbacks. The fast pacing in numerous places doesn’t really let scenes sink in.
Second, there are far too many characters to follow, and I feel a number of them should have been cut — mainly Jenny (Sara Jean Ford) and Mr. Cordle (Nick Wyman). They’re entertaining enough, but they don’t really contribute much to the story. A tighter rewrite could admittedly benefit the show.
Simply put, you’ll either be able to get past the old-school vibe of this show, or you won’t. I certainly was able to, and found plenty of value in the visuals, music, performances and script to connect me with these characters.
Directed by Adrian Noble, Sousatzka runs until April 9 at the Elgin Theatre. For more information, visit toronto-theatre.com.