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A CurtainUp Review
Kat and the Kings

by Les Gutman

 Photo: Johan Wilke
Life is a cabaret, old chum,
So come to the cabaret..
---Fred Ebb
They loved our cabaret.
---David Kramer
You might as well go ahead and surrender as soon as you take your seat. The six Capetowners who form the cast of Kat and the Kings will work until they win you over, so there's not much to be gained by fighting it. You can force yourself to concentrate on the implications of this show for the future of theater or some similarly weighty subject if you wish, but you'll eventually abandon your train of thought and succumb to the temptation to just have a good time..

If Cabaret, which is certainly "theater," can take up valuable nightclub space, doesn't equity (the concept, not the union) demand that this show, which is at its best when it's not trying to be theater, be permitted to occupy a Broadway stage? It's so much fun, and the talented cast has such an infectious good time, that by its finale, you're convinced the answer must be yes.

In London, Kat and the Kings won two 1998 Olivier awards: Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical (which was awarded communally to the cast). This may say more about the state of musicals in London than anything else, but it is some measure of the show's many charms. Much can be said about this show's failure to "commit the act of theater" (credit Danny Hoch with the quote), but its ability to entertain cannot be gainsaid.

Taliep Petersen, a well-known Capetown entertainer, provides an appealing musical base, consisting mostly of doo-wop and 50's rock styles, with a couple of slower, r&b interludes. He's apparently known for his reinterpretation of traditional Cape music; we get a notion of this talent in his reprise of the song "Lagunya". While Saul Radomsky's sets are a bit meager, his resplendent costumes more than make up for them.

Kat Diamond (Terry Hector), now a shoe shine man in Capetown, looks back to the fifties and the sweet but ephemeral celebrity he enjoyed in a "colored" doo-wop group, Kat and the Cavalla Kings, in the early days of rock 'n roll. A few explanations: Capetown, we learn, is at the top of Africa, not the bottom as we might have thought; "colored," in Cape Town parlance, means neither black nor white; "Cavalla Kings" is the name of a brand of cigarettes; and doo wop rock is conjured up by groups like the Platters, the Drifters and the Coasters. "Looks back" means that narration is the fount of most of the show's skimpy exposition.
The endearing Hector floats in and out of scenes with his younger, ball-of-fire self (Jody J. Abrahams). Three of Kat's buddies comprise the Kings: Bingo (Loukmaan Adams), Ballie (Junaid Booysen) and Magoo (Alistair Izobell), augmented by the latter's sister, Lucy (Kim Louis). Getting to see Kat and the Cavalla Kings in performance is the show's raison d'être, and about half of the show is a staged concert. Rarely has more energy and enthusiasm coalesced on a Broadway stage. The quartet sings brilliantly, dances with power and elegance, and exudes good cheer.

Which brings us, reluctantly, to the downside. There are two stories begging to be told here; neither one manages to get more than a few words in edgewise. The larger story is about apartheid: what it means to live under legislated  injustice and inequality, a world in which doors are closed based on skin color. We are fed a few glimpses of the indignities: having a popular record yanked off the local radio stations when it is discovered the Kings are not white, having to sleep in servant quarters and work as bellhops in a hotel during the day in order to entertain there at night, and so on. But at every hint of  unpleasantness, the show's creators are quick to introduce a happy song, and smiling faces to take our mind away. (Lucy, reading a newspaper, tries to dull the mood once, but before you know it, she's jolly again too.)

I could rationalize this, perhaps, as an apt portrait of the way in which these individuals dealt with their lives: music as analgesic. But the other story, the personal one, which should strike us as a sad, poignant one, does not move us at all. These five people were uprooted when the entire neighborhood in which they grew up and lived -- an integrated, multicultural one -- was bulldozed into oblivion. But so as to avoid interrupting the insistent march of the good mood, this is mentioned only in passing. When, ultimately, Lucy announces she and the group's white agent, with whom she is in love, will leave the country so they can be together legally, and it becomes clear the uprooted group is falling apart, we are without the dramatic foundation we would need to care. It's fairly clear the authors don't want us to. Kat and the Kings breaks into its exceptionally festive finale.
And, humming and with a bounce in our step,  that is what we take home with us.
Book and lyrics by David Kramer 
Music and arrangements by Taliep Petersen 
Directed and musically staged by David Kramer 
with Jody J. Abrahams, Loukmaan Adams, Junaid Booysen, Terry Hector, Alistair Izobell and Kim Louis 

Set and Costume Design: Saul Radomsky 
Lighting Design: Howard Harrison 
Sound Design: Orbital Sound/Sebastian Frost 
Musical Direction: Jeff Lams 
Choreography: Jody J. Abrahams and Loukmaan Adams 

Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street (6th/Broadway) (212) 239-6200 
opened August 19, 1999 for open run 
Time: 2 hours 10 minutes with 1 intermission 
Seen August 20, 1999 and reviewed by Les Gutman August 21, 1999
Closing 1/02/2000
©Copyright August 1999, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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